The Costs and Benefits of Cross-Task Priming

By Waszak, Florian; Hommel, Bernhard | Memory & Cognition, July 2007 | Go to article overview

The Costs and Benefits of Cross-Task Priming


Waszak, Florian, Hommel, Bernhard, Memory & Cognition


Two lines of research on cross-task priming yield opposite results. Research on repetition priming observed positive priming, whereas research on the role of priming in task-switching observed negative effects. We combined the two types of design. In the transfer phase of our paradigm, subjects performed task B either as a pure block (BBB) or as a switch block (ABAB). We presented items which were either unprimed or primed by prior presentation during a preceding priming phase performed on task A. Amongst others, the priming effect is determined by two factors: First, the more operation time the system needs during the probe event, the higher the likelihood to obtain priming. Protracting operation time by reducing stimulus quality favors positive priming, whereas providing more operation time by making subjects switch between tasks favors negative priming. Second, the strength of the memory trace of the prime event determines whether that trace can possibly yield negative priming, in that only strong traces can be retrieved together with the associated task/response.

Priming refers to a change in the speed or accuracy of processing of a probe event, as a result of prior experience with the same or a related prime event. Priming can refer to stimuli, responses, or entire stimulus- response (S-R) episodes and it can facilitate or hamper processing (positive priming and negative priming, respectively). The effect of a priming event may dissipate after a few seconds or it may survive minutes or even days. For a review, see RichardsonKlavehn and Bjork (1988) and Henson (2003).

Up to now the conditions for, and the relationships between different forms of priming are rather unclear. Among other things, it remains an open issue how positive priming relates to negative priming, and whether short-term and long-term priming reflect the same mechanisms. The present article aims at understanding how the task context in which a prime event occurs affects priming. To anticipate, we will show that, across a switch of task, the same priming events may speed up or impede subsequent processing of a recurring stimulus, depending on factors related to the prime event (e.g., number of accumulated processing episodes) as well as factors related to the probe event (e.g., the probe trials' sensitivity to priming). That is, repetition-prime events can have utterly different effects, depending on specific aspects of the experimental set-up - an important insight on the way toward an integrative theory of priming.

Our experiments were motivated by an apparent empirical inconsistency. On the one hand, a number of studies have found positive priming from one task context to another, that is, a prime-induced facilitation of probe processing even when prime and probe appeared in different tasks. For example, words presented in a word-pronunciation task facilitate responses to the same words appearing in a lexical-decision (word/nonword) task (Monsell, 1985; Scarborough, Gerard, & Cortese, 1979), and vice versa (Monsell, 1985; Logan, 1990). Similarly, encountering a picture in a task requiring facial-expression judgments (smiling/not smiling?) or gender classification (male/female?) facilitates familiarity judgments on this picture (Ellis, Young, & Flude, 1990).

On the other hand, negative cross-task priming has consistently been observed in experiments on the influence of S-R priming in task-switching (Waszak, Hommel, & Allport, 2003, 2004, 2005; see also Koch & Allport, 2006; Koch, Prinz, & Allport, 2005; Wylie & Allport, 2000, but see also Yeung & Monsell, 2003). In the experiments of Waszak and colleagues, participants orally named either the word- or the picture-constituent of incongruent (Stroop-like) picture-word conjunctions (e.g., the picture of a LION with the word apple superimposed on it), switching task every third trial. Within the word-reading task, participants could encounter picture-word stimuli that had never been presented in the context of picturenaming (unprimed stimuli, i. …

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