In a follow up to my last post on color memory and how it affects actual color perception, I would like to highlight a classical psychological study by Bruner and Postaman, that showed that even for non-natural artifacts like suits in a playing card deck, our expectation of the normal color or shape of a suit, affects our perception of a stimuli that is incongruent to our expectations.

In a nutshell, in this study incongruent stimuli like a red spade card or a black heart card was presented for brief durations and the subjects asked to identify the stimuli completely – the form or shape (heart/spade/club/diamond), the color (red/black) and the number( 1..10…face cards were not used) of the stimuli.

The trial used both congruent ( for eg a red heart, a black club) as well as incongruent stimuli (a black heart, a red spade).

To me this appears to be a form of stroop task , in which, if one assumes that form is a more salient stimulus than color, then a presentation of a spade figure would automatically activate the black color perception and the prepotent color naming response would be black, despite the fact that the spade was presented in red color. This prepotent ‘black’ verbal response would, as per standard stroop effect explanations, be inhibited for the successful ‘red’ verbal response to happen. I am making an analogy here that the form of a suit is equivalent to the linguistic color-term and that this triggers a prepotent response.

In these lights, the results of the experiment do seem to suggest a stroop effect in this playing-deck task, with subjects taking more trials to recognize incongruent stimuli as compared to congruent stimuli.


Perhaps the most central finding is that the recognition threshold for the incongruous playing cards (whose with suit and color reversed) is significantly higher than the threshold for normal cards. While normal cards on the average were recognized correctly — here defined as a correct response followed by a second correct response — at 28 milliseconds, the incongruous cards required 114 milliseconds. The difference, representing a fourfold increase in threshold, is highly significant statistically, t being 3.76 (confidence level < .01).



Further interesting is the fact that this incongruence threshold decreases if one or more incongruent trials precede the incongruent trial in question; or increases if the preceding trials are with normal cards. This is inline with current theories of stroop effect as involving both memory and attention, whereby the active maintenance of the goal (ignore form and focus on color while naming color) affects performance on all trials and also affects the errors , while the attentional mechanism to resolve incongruence affects only reaction times (and leads to RT interference).

As in the playing card study, no reaction time measures were taken, but only the threshold reached to correctly recognize the stimuli were used, so we don’t have any RT measures, but a big threshold is indicative of and roughly equal to an error on a trial. The higher thresholds on incongruent trial means that the errors on incongruent trial were more than on congruent trials. The increase in threshold , when normal card precede and a decrease when incongruent cards precede is analogous to the high-congruency and low-congruency trials described in Kane and Engel study and analyzed in my previous posts as well as in a Developing Intelligence post. It is intuitive to note that when incongruent trials precede, then the goal (ignore form and focus on color while naming color) becomes more salient; when normal cards precede one may have RT facilitation and the (implicit) goal to ignore color may become less salient.

Experience with an incongruity is effective in so far as it modifies the set of the subject to prepare him for incongruity. To take an example, the threshold recognition time for incongruous cards presented before the subject has had anything else in the tachistoscope — normal or incongruous — is 360 milliseconds. If he has had experience in the recognition of one or more normal cards before being presented an incongruous stimulus, the threshold rises slightly but insignificantly to 420 milliseconds. Prior experience with normal cards does not lead to better recognition performance with incongruous cards (see attached Table ). If, however, an observer has had to recognize one incongruous card, the threshold for the next trick card he is presented drops to 230 milliseconds. And if, finally, the incongruous card comes after experience with two or three previously exposed trick cards, threshold drops still further to 84 milliseconds.

Thus clearly the goal maintenance part of stroop effect is clearly in play in the playing-card task and affects the threshold for correct recognition.

The second part of explanation of stroop task is usually based on directed inhibition and an attentional process that inhibits the perpotent response. This effect comes into play only on incongruent trials. An alternate explanation is that their is increased competition of competing representations on incongruent trials and instead of any top-down directed inhibition, inline with the goal/expectation, their is only localized inhibition. The dissociation of a top-down goal maintenance mechanism ad another attentional selection mechanism seems to be more inline with the new model, wherein inhibition is local and not top-directed.

While RT measures are not available it is intersecting to take a look at some of the qualitative data that supports a local inhibition and attentional mechanism involved in reacting to incongruent stimuli. The authors present evidence that the normal course of responses that are generated by the subjects for (incongruent) stimuli is dominance, compromise, disruption and finally recognition.

Generally speaking, there appear to be four kinds of reaction to rapidly presented incongruities. The first of these we have called the dominance reaction. It consists, essentially, of a “perceptual denial” of the incongruous elements in the stimulus pattern. Faced with a red six of spades, for example, a subject may report with considerable assurance, “the six of spades” or the “six of hearts,” depending upon whether he is color or form bound (vide infra). In the one case the form dominates and the color is assimilated to it; in the other the stimulus color dominates and form is assimilated to it. In both instances the perceptual resultant conforms with past expectations about the “normal” nature of playing cards.

A second technique of dealing with incongruous stimuli we have called compromise. In the language of Egon Brunswik , it is the perception of a Zwischengegenstand or compromise object which composes the potential conflict between two or more perceptual intentions. Three examples of color compromise: (a) the red six of spades is reported as either the purple six of hearts or the purple six of spades; (b) the black four of hearts is reported as a “grayish” four of spades; (c) the red six of clubs is seen as “the six of clubs illuminated by red light.”

A third reaction may be called disruption. A subject fails to achieve a perceptual organization at the level of coherence normally attained by him at a given exposure level. Disruption usually follows upon a period in which the subject has failed to resolve the stimulus in terms of his available perceptual expectations. He has failed to confirm any of his repertory of expectancies. Its expression tends to be somewhat bizarre: “I don’t know what the hell it is now, not even for sure whether it’s a playing card,” said one frustrated subject after an exposure well above his normal threshold.

Finally, there is recognition of incongruity, the fourth, and viewed from the experimenter’s chair, most successful reaction. It too is marked by some interesting psychological by-products, of which more in the proper place.

This sequence points towards a local inhibition mechanism in which either one of the responses is selected and dominates the other; or both the responses mix and yield to give a mixed percept —this is why a gray banana may appear yellowish—or why a banana matched to gray background by subjects may actually be made bluish—as that of a blackish red perception of suit color; or in some cases there may be frustration when the incongruent stimuli cannot be adequately reconciled with expectations- leading to disruption- in the classical stroop task this may explain the skew in RT for some incongruent trials—-some take a lot of time as maybe one has just suffered from disruption—; and finally one may respond correctly but only after a reasonable delay. This sequence is difficult to explain in terms of top-down expectation model and directed inhibition.

Finally, although we have been discussing the playing card task in terms of stroop effect, one obvious difference is striking. In the playing cards and t e pink-banana experiments the colors and forms or objects are tightly coupled- we have normally only seen a yellow banana or a red heart suit. This is not so for the printed grapheme and linguistic color terms- we have viewed then in all colors , mostly in black/gray- but the string hue association that we still have with those colors is on a supposedly higher layer of abstraction.

Thus, when an incongruent stimuli like a red heart is presented , then any of the features of the object may take prominence and induce incongruence in the other feature. For eg, we may give more salience to form and identity it as a black spade; alternately we may identify the object using color and perceive incongruence in shape- thus we may identify it as a red spade. Interestingly, both kind of errors were observed in the Bruner study. Till date, one hast not really focussed on the reverse stroop test- whereby one asks people to name the color word and ignore the actual color- this seems to be an easy task as the linguistic grapheme are not tied to any color in particular- the only exception being black hue which might be reasonably said to be associated with all grapheme (it is the most popular ink). Consistent with this, in this reverse stroop test, sometimes subjects may respond ‘black’ when watching a ‘red’ linguistic term in black ink-color. This effect would be for ‘black’ word response and black ink-color only and for no other ink color. Also, the response time for ‘black’ response may be facilitated when the ink-color is black (and the linguistic term is also ‘black’) compared to other ink-colors and other color-terms. No one has conducted such an experiment, but one can experiment and see if there is a small stroop effect involved here in the reverse direction too.

Also, another important question of prime concern is whether the stroop interference in both cases, the normal stroop test, and the playing card test, is due to a similar underlying mechanism, whereby due to past sensory (in case of playing cards) or semantic associations (in case of linguistic color terms) the color terms or forms (bananas/ suits) get associated with a hue and seeing that stimulus feature automatically activates a sensory or semantic activation of the corresponding hue. This prepotent response then competes with the response that is triggered by the actual hue of the presented stimulus and this leads to local inhibition and selection leading to stroop interference effects.

If the results of the non-verbal stroop test, comprising of natural or man-made objects, with strong color associations associated with them, results in similar results as observed in the classical stroop test, then this may be a strong argument for domain-general associationist/ connectionist models of language semantics and imply that linguistic specificity may be over hyped and at least the semantics part of language acquisition, is mostly a domain general process. On the other hand, dissimilar results on non-verbal stroop tests form the normal stroop test, may indicate that the binding of features in objects during perception; and the binding of abstract meaning to linguistic words in a language have different underlying mechanisms and their is much room for linguistic specificity. Otherwise, it is apparent that the binding of abstract meaning to terms is different a problem from that of binding of different visual features to represent and perceive an object. One may use methods and results from one field and apply them in the other.

To me this seems extremely interesting and promising. The evidence that stroop test is due to two processes – one attentional and the other goal maintenance/ memory mediated – and its replication in a non-verbal stroop tests, would essentially help us a lot by focusing research on common cognitive mechanisms underlying working memory – one dependent on memory of past associations and their active maintenance- whether verbal/abstract or visual/sensory- and the other dependent on a real-time resolution of incongruity/ambiguity by focusing attention on one response to the exclusion of the other. This may well correspond to the Gc and Gf measures of intelligence. One reflecting how good we are at handling and using existing knowledge; the other how good we are able to take into account new information and respond to novel situations. One may even extend this to the two dissociated memory mechanisms that have been observed in parahippocampal regions- one used when encountering familiar situations/stimuli and the other when encountering novel stimuli. One essentially a process of assimilation as per existing schema/ conceptual metaphors; the other a process of accommodation, involving perhaps, an appreciation/formation of novel metaphors and constructs.

Enough theorizing and speculations for now. Maybe I should act on this and make an online non-verbal stroop test instead to test my theories!

Endgame: Another interesting twist to the playing cards experiment could be in terms of motivated perception. Mixing Memory discusses another classical study by Bruner in this regard. Suppose that we manipulate motivations of people so that they are either expecting to see a heart or a red color as the next stimuli- because only this desired stimuli would yield them a desired outcome, say, orange juice; then in this case when presented with an incongruent stimuli – a red spade- would we be able to differentially manipulate the resolution of incongruence; that is those motivated to see red would report seeing a ‘red spade’ and those motivated to see a heart would report a ‘black heart’ . Or is the effect modality specific with effects on color more salient than on form. Is it easier to see a different color than it is to see a different form? And is this related to the modality specific Sham’s visual illusion that has asymmetry in the sense that two beeps, one flash leads to perception of two flashes easily but not vice versa.

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