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Dev Psychol. 2002 May;38(3):352-62.

Conditions under which young children can hold two rules in mind and inhibit a prepotent response.

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  • 1Center for Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Waltham 02452, USA.


The day-night task requires saying "night" to a picture of the sun and "day" to a picture of the moon. In this investigation of why young children fail at this task, systematic variations of the task were administered to 96 children, half 4 years old and half 4 1/2 years old. Training children on the strategy of chunking the 2 rules into I ("say the opposite"), thus reducing memory load, did not help their performance. What helped was reducing the inhibitory demand by instructing them to say "dog" and "pig" (not "night" and "day") even though memory of 2 rules and inhibiting saying what the pictures represented were still required. Here the response to be activated and the response to be inhibited were unrelated. When the correct response was semantically related to, and the direct opposite of, the to-be-inhibited response, children performed poorly. Inserting a delay between stimulus and response helped even though that delay was filled with distraction. Young children apparently need several seconds to compute the answer on this task. Often they do not take the needed time; when forced to do so, they do well.

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