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J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 1984 Jan;10(1):61-71.

Representation of linear orders.


Two binary classification tasks were used to explore the associative structure of linear orders. In Experiment 1, college students classified English letters as targets or nontargets, the targets being consecutive letters of the alphabet. The time to reject nontargets was a decreasing function of the distance from the target set, suggesting response interference mediated by automatic associations from the target to the nontarget letters. The way in which this interference effect depended on the placement of the boundaries between the target and nontarget sets revealed the relative strengths of individual interletter associations. In Experiment 2, students were assigned novel linear orders composed of letterlike symbols and asked to classify pairs of symbols as being adjacent or nonadjacent in the assigned sequence. Reaction time was found to be a joint function of the distance between any pair of symbols and the relative positions of those symbols within the sequence. The effects of both distance and position decreased systematically over 6 days of practice with a particular order, beginning at a level typical of unfamiliar orders and converging on a level characteristic of familiar orders such as letters and digits. These results provide an empirical unification of two previously disparate sets of findings in the literature on linear orders, those concerning familiar and unfamiliar orders, and the systematic transition between the two patterns of results suggests the gradual integration of a new associative structure.

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