Attentional prioritization reconfigures novel instructions into action-oriented task sets

Abstract

An astonishing aspect of human cognitive flexibility concerns the ability to efficiently convert complex symbolic instructions into novel behaviors. In such ability, the rapid transformation of relevant content into action plans is particularly crucial as it allows for reflexive, automatic-like execution of merely instructed task sets. However, little is known about the mechanisms that give rise to this transformation. In the current study, we test the hypothesis that novel instructions held in working memory are reformatted into action-oriented representations when selective attention prioritizes their content. To do so, we devised a paradigm in which participants first encoded 4 S-R mappings and later, a retro-cue selected two of them. We first found that participants can benefit from retro-cues during the implementation of novel task-sets. Then, across two preregistered experiments, we observed that cued mappings (but not uncued ones) induced intention-based reflexivity, suggesting that only these entered an action-oriented state. Altogether, our results reveal that selective attention prioritizes relevant novel instructed content, playing an important role in its prospective reformatting into an action-bound task set.

Publication
Cognition

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