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J Exp Child Psychol. 2018 Aug;172:59-72. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2018.01.019. Epub 2018 Mar 26.

Task switching costs in preschool children and adults.

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Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck University of London, London WC1E 7HX, UK. Electronic address:
Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck University of London, London WC1E 7HX, UK.


Past research investigating cognitive flexibility has shown that preschool children make many perseverative errors in tasks that require switching between different sets of rules. However, this inflexibility might not necessarily hold with easier tasks. The current study investigated the developmental differences in cognitive flexibility using a task-switching procedure that compared reaction times and accuracy in 4- and 6-year-olds with those in adults. The experiment involved simple target detection tasks and was intentionally designed in a way that the stimulus and response conflicts were minimal together with a long preparation window. Global mixing costs (performance costs when multiple tasks are relevant in a context), and local switch costs (performance costs due to switching to an alternative task) are typically thought to engage endogenous control processes. If this is the case, we should observe developmental differences with both of these costs. Our results show, however, that when the accuracy was good, there were no age differences in cognitive flexibility (i.e., the ability to manage multiple tasks and to switch between tasks) between children and adults. Even though preschool children had slower reaction times and were less accurate, the mixing and switch costs associated with task switching were not reliably larger for preschool children. Preschool children did, however, show more commission errors and greater response repetition effects than adults, which may reflect differences in inhibitory control.


Cognitive flexibility; Development; Executive function; Preschool children; Selective attention; Task switching

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