Is the blocking effect sensitive to causal model? It depends how you ask

AbstractCue competition effects in human contingency learning appear to be sensitive to the causal nature of cue-outcome relationships. While blocking effects are reliably demonstrated in scenarios where cues are presented as causes of outcomes, several studies have failed to find blocking in scenarios where cues are presented as effects of outcomes, a finding that is typically taken as evidence for the involvement of controlled reasoning processes in cue competition. These studies typically measure blocking with continuous causal ratings about individual cues. Previous studies have found that sensitivity to causal model may depend on how the test question is phrased. In contrast, the current study tested the sensitivity of blocking to causal scenarios across different formats of the same test question. Participants completed a causal learning task with instructions suggesting either a predictive (i.e. cue causes outcome) or diagnostic (cue is caused by outcome) cue-outcome relationship. Participants were then asked about the likelihood of outcomes occurring by either giving a continuous rating of each outcome or a discrete choice about the most likely outcome. When measured by continuous ratings of individual cues, blocking was evident in predictive, but not diagnostic scenarios. However, when measured by discrete choice or using a compound negation test, blocking was robust and insensitive to causal scenario. The results suggest that contributions of predictive memory and causal reasoning to cue competition effects may depend substantially on the type of measure used.


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