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Dynamic Conflict Management: Using performance monitoring to guide stable adjustment in task performance and flexible task selection in self-organized multitasking environments (2015-2018; 2018-2021)


David Dignath

Dr. David Dignath                       

Principal Investigator

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Elisa Straub

Elisa Straub                    

PhD Candidate

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 Markus Spitzer

Markus Spitzer

PhD Candidate

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This project is done in collaboration with other PIs withing the SPP project, Prof. Dr. Andrea Kiesel (Freiburg), Dr. Stefanie Schuch (Aachen), Dr. Kerstin Fröber (Regensburg), Prof. Dr. Sarah Lukas (Weingarten), and Prof. Dr. Markus Janczyk (Tübingen), as well as with our external collaborator Prof. Dr. Andreas Eder (Würzburg).


Abstract (2018-2021)

Cognitive control describes a set of regulatory mechanisms that allow for stability and flexibility in behavior. This is perhaps most obvious in multitasking. Executing multiple tasks in rapid succession requires the stable maintenance of task goals to successfully perform individual tasks. Additionally it requires flexible switching between tasks to schedule the order of events appropriately. Control is often triggered by critical events (e.g. conflict between mutual incompatible responses) that signal the need to modify previous behavior. Recent research suggested that conflict during task performance has a two-fold function. One the one hand, it signals the need for more stability and improved task focus. On the other hand, it acts as a “switch” cue that signals the opportunity to disengage from a currently difficult task; thereby conflict increases flexibility in task choices. Yet, it has been suggested that the signaling function of conflict critically depends on the utility in a specific context. For instance, we can learn that conflict is more frequent in one context or task than in the other. In this project we aim to investigate such proactive control for task choices and task performance and their interaction during multitasking. More specifically, we will assess how conflict during task performance informs the selection of tasks and we will test how the possibility to choose tasks changes control during task performance. But how can conflict fulfill these multiple signaling functions? According to theoretical models conflict is registered as a negative affective signal which serves as a common currency to inform different control mechanisms. One goal of this project is to test this assumption and to provide evidence that conflict in multitasking elicits negative affect, and to assess how conflict-triggered affect informs proactive control. Furthermore, the current project aims to investigate whether and how these cognitive control mechanisms can be applied to motor control. Therefore, we will systematically compare control principles and probe a possible transfer of learned proactive control across domains.


Abstract (2015-2018)

When we perform multiple tasks in parallel, we often face a dilemma. On the one hand, we have to be persistent and concentrate on specific aspects in order to complete a single task. On the other hand, we have to be flexible and switch between different tasks to maintain an adequate overall performance. These seemingly opposing demands on action coordination require control. The need for control is often triggered by critical events like conflict between incompatible responses or errors. Previous work has shown that the detection of conflict optimizes attentional processes and increases stability – we get better at the actual task and solve conflict. However, other studies have shown that the detection of conflict triggers a process of task-disengagement and increases flexibility – we switch to an alternative task and avoid conflict.

While theoretical work has stressed the importance of both strategies for successful multitasking, most research investigated only one or the other. The goal of this project is integrate these two lines of research and to investigate how opposing control demands are coordinated in multitasking. As a working hypothesis, we suggest that conflict detection has different consequences for self-organized (endogenous control) and external-organized (exogenous control) multitasking. More specifically, we hypothesized that self-organization of task order in multitasking allows a generalization of control parameter across tasks and across level of control (task selection and task performance). For decision making, this implies flexible disengagement from conflict-associated tasks. For task performance this implies stable focusing of attention and resolving of conflict. If these prediction can be confirmed, it would provide a new perspective on task switches in multitasking: While task switching is currently viewed as a cost for multitasking, our research would suggest that task switching can be understood as a means to optimize overall performance in multitasking.

To test these predictions, we will investigate whether and how endogenous task choices facilitates domain general control in task performance. Furthermore, we will address the underlying mechanisms of conflict avoidance and probe how task performance influences decision making in multitasking. And finally, we will investigate the role of affect as a signal for control in multitasking.


Project Output


Spitzer, M. W. H., Kiesel, A., & Dignath, D. (2022). Performance errors influence voluntary task choices. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform, 48(6), 665-688. https://doi.org/10.1037/xhp0000991

Straub, E. R., Dames, H., Kiesel, A., & Dignath, D. (2022). Does body posture reduce the Stroop effect? Evidence from two conceptual replications and a meta-analysis. Acta Psychol (Amst), 224, 103497. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2022.103497

Straub, E. R., Schmidts, C., Kunde, W., Zhang, J., Kiesel, A., & Dignath, D. (2022). Limitations of cognitive control on emotional distraction - Congruency in the Color Stroop task does not modulate the Emotional Stroop effect. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci, 22(1), 21-41. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-021-00935-4

Dignath, D., & Kiesel, A. (2021). Further Evidence for the Binding and Retrieval of Control-States From the Flanker Task. Exp Psychol, 68(5), 264-273. https://doi.org/10.1027/1618-3169/a000529

Dignath, D., Janczyk, M., & Eder, A. B. (2017). Phasic valence and arousal do not influence post-conflict adjustments in the Simon task. Acta Psychologica, 174, 31-39. doi: http://10.1016/j.actpsy.2017.01.004.

Künzell, S., Bröker, L., Dignath, D., Ewolds, H., Raab, M., & Thomaschke, R. (in press). What is a task? An ideomotor perspective. Psychological Research.

Mittelstädt, V., Dignath, D., Schmidt-Ott, M., & Kiesel, A. (in press). Exploring the Repetition Bias in Voluntary Task Switching. Psychological Research.

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