Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Why Do Children Perseverate When They Seem to Know Better: Graded Working Memory, or Directed Inhibition?

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Why Do Children Perseverate When They Seem to Know Better: Graded Working Memory, or Directed Inhibition?

Article excerpt

Children sometimes have trouble switching from one task to another, despite demonstrating an awareness of current task demands. This behavior could reflect problems either directly inhibiting previously relevant information or sufficiently activating graded working memory representations for the current task. We tested competing predictions from each account, using a computerized card-sorting task in which we assessed children's task switching abilities and their response speed to simple questions about current task demands. All children answered these questions correctly, but children who successfully switched tasks responded more quickly to questions than did children who perseverated on previous tasks, even after factoring out processing speed and age. This reaction time difference supports graded working memory accounts, with stronger representations of current task demands aiding both task-switching and responses to questions. This result poses a challenge for directed inhibition accounts, because nothing needs to be inhibited to answer simple questions that lack conflicting information.

Individuals often perseverate: on casual clothes Friday, they put on formal clothes; switching between computer operating systems, they press the wrong control key. Perseveration is a hallmark of ADHD (Barkley, 1997), autism (Tsuchiya, Oki, Yahara, & Fujieda, 2005), and frontal lobe damage (Milner, 1963). It is particularly salient in typically developing preschoolers and young children: When asked to change from one matching rule (e.g., shape) to a new one (e.g., color), young children often continue to use the first rule (Kirkham, Cruess, & Diamond, 2003; Perner & Lang, 2002; Towse, Redbond, Houston-Price, & Cook, 2000; Zelazo, Müller, Frye, & Marcovitch, 2003), even after feedback is provided (Cepeda, Cepeda, & Kramer, 2000; Yerys & Munakata, 2007) and despite clear and repeated instruction. In sharp contrast, young children are very good at answering questions about what they are supposed to be doing (e.g., "In the shape game, where do cats go?"-Zelazo & Reznick, 1991).

Why do children perseverate, when they seem to know better? We contrast two explanations, and test their distinct predictions in the current study. According to directed inhibition accounts (Anderson, 2005; Freud, 1938/1995; James, 1901; Ridderinkhof, van den Wildenberg, Wijnen, & Burle, 2004; Zacks & Hasher, 1994), people perseverate due to problems with top-down inhibition of prepotent responses (e.g., old stimulus-response rules). They answer questions correctly because they know what action they should perform, yet they cannot prevent themselves from using the old rule. Many behaviors that seem to require directed inhibition may be explicable in other ways (Altmann, 2004; Deák, 2003; Egner & Hirsch, 2005; Hedden & Park, 2003; MacLeod, Dodd, Sheard, Wilson, & Bibi, 2003; Stedron, Sahni, & Munakata, 2005). For example, according to graded working memory accounts (Cohen, Dunbar, & McClelland, 1990; Roberts & Pennington, 1996), people perseverate due to problems strongly maintaining current task information (e.g., the new rule) in working memory. They answer questions correctly because weak working memory representations of current task rules suffice for "nonconflict" tasks where information about the old rule is removed (Morton & Munakata, 2002). Consistent with this, apparent knowledge-action dissociations disappear when measures are equated for degree of conflict (e.g., sorting a red cat and answering the question "Where do red cats go?"; Munakata & Yerys, 2001). Under graded memory accounts, inhibition emerges indirectly from competition throughout the system, and representations with more working memory support are more likely to win.

Graded working memory and inhibition accounts are difficult to distinguish under conflict conditions (MacLeod et al., 2003; Mayr, 2002), because results could be attributed to either actively inhibiting an old task or actively maintaining a new task. …

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