Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Competing for a Desired Reward in the Stroop Task: When Attentional Control Is Unconscious but Effective versus Conscious but Ineffective

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Competing for a Desired Reward in the Stroop Task: When Attentional Control Is Unconscious but Effective versus Conscious but Ineffective

Article excerpt

Abstract Recent studies using Stroop's paradigm have shown that word recognition processes can be controlled when the local context of the task is manipulated. In the present study, factors related to the participants' broader context (i.e., presence vs. absence of a competitor and of a desired reward) were manipulated. The results (1) support the conclusion that control of semantic-level activation can be unconscious but effective versus conscious but ineffective, (2) suggest that unconscious control alone operates on line (i.e., when the participant is responding), and (3) clarify the impact of socio-contextual factors that have been confounded in past research. Taken together, these findings strengthen the view that word recognition processes are controllable and offer new reasons to pay constant attention to the social environment of cognition.

In the standard Stroop task, individuals are required to identify the colour of the ink in which words and control signs are printed. Typically, the time needed to identify the colour of incongruent words (e.g., the word RKD printed in green) is greater than the time needed to name the colour of control signs (e.g., XXX printed in green). This robust effect is called Stroop interference (see MacLeod, 1991, for a review). A core assumption of virtually all theoretical accounts of this interference is that skilled readers process the incongruent word without conscious intent. The reading of the word is said to be automatic in the sense that readers cannot refrain from accessing the meaning of the word despite explicit instructions not to do so. As Reisberg (1997) put it, "The automatization of word recognition allows much quicker reading... but also leaves us vulnerable to the Stroop effect... knowing about this effect is not protection - the processes are not open to control" (p. 603).

There is a large body of evidence, however, suggesting that few processes, if any, are entirely independent of attentional control (e.g., Logan, 1980). Many of the relevant findings have come from the Slroop paradigm (e.g., Algom, Dekel, & Pansky, 1990; Besner, 2001; Besner & Stolz, 1999a, 1999b; Besner, Stolz, & Boutilier, 1997; Kahneman & Chajczyk, 1983; Logan, 1980; Logan & Zbrodoff, 1979; Stolz & Besner, 1999; Tzelgov, Henik, & Berger, 1992). Besner et al. (1997), for example, used a modification of the Stroop task in which only a single letter of the incongruent words was coloured. Stroop interference was either reduced or eliminated in this condition, suggesting that spatial attention was focused, thus preventing lexical-semantic activation (at least temporarily). Besner and Stolz (1999a) also found that the precuing (with a small arrow) of a single letter position (with all letters of irrelevant words coloured) can serve to focus spatial attention more narrowly, so that subsequent wordrecognition processes operate less efficiently or not at all, as indicated by a reduction or elimination of the Stroop effect (see also Besner, 2001, for a combination of such manipulations). In these studies, all participants were explicitly asked to ignore the words. The fact that the Stroop effect still occurred when intact Stroop stimuli were used and disappeared with modified stimuli leads to the conclusion that word processing was controlled without conscious intent (to control) (see Besner & Stolz, 1999b; Stolz & Besner, 1999). Further evidence that attention can be diverted from the semantic level is found in Stolz and Besner's (1996) study using the semantic priming paradigm. Semantic priming was reduced or eliminated by a letter-search task that affected the distribution of attention during prime word processing (see also Stolz & Hesner, 1998, 1999). Taken together, these findings suggest that processing words at the lexical-semantic level, although typically unintentional, is the default set rather than automatic in the sense of being inevitable. This conclusion is problematic for the classic or decontextualized "automatic" processing account of the Stroop effect that has prevailed in the Stroop literature for the last six decades. …

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