The influence of temporal factors on automatic priming and conscious expectancy in a simple reaction time task

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Article Type: 
associative learning, trance and delay conditioning, priming, expectancy
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Arnaud Destrebecqz
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Arnaud Destrebecqz, Pierre Perruchet, Axel Cleeremans, Steven Laureys, Pierre Maquet, Philippe Peigneux
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The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
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In a previous study, we have reported a striking dissociation between subjective expectancy and motor behavior in a simple associative learning task (Perruchet, Cleeremans, & Destrebecqz, 2006). According to previous conditioning studies (Clark, Manns, & Squire, 2001), this dissociation is observed when the to-be-associated events co-terminate and thus overlap in time (a training regimen called delay conditioning), but not when they are separated by a temporal delay (trace conditioning). In this latter situation indeed, behavior (as measured by the probability of occurrence of a conditioned response) and subjective expectancy (for the unconditioned stimulus to be presented on the next trial) tend to be associated with each other. In this study, we further investigated this issue by manipulating the temporal dimension of associative learning in a series of experiments where conscious and unconscious components of performance have been pit against each other. To do so, subjects performed a simple reaction time task in which a preparatory signal (a tone) either overlapped with or terminated earlier than the imperative stimulus (a visual target presented in 50% of the trials). After each response, subjects also had to state how much they expected the imperative stimulus to be displayed on the next trial. Results indicate that reaction times tend to decrease when the preparatory signal is consistently followed by the imperative stimulus across successive trials, whereas conscious expectancy for the target (as indexed by predictions) decreases at the same time. Importantly, we also systematically found that the temporal relationship between the preparatory tone and the imperative visual target failed to influence performance, which was instead systematically dissociated from conscious expectancy. We therefore conclude that the influence that temporal factors exert on associative learning differs when voluntary instead of automatic responses are involved.
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