Dual-task processing with identical stimulus and response sets: Assessing the importance of task representation in dual-task interference

Eric H. Schumacher, Savannah L. Cookson, Derek M. Smith, Tiffany V.N. Nguyen, Zain Sultan, Katherine E. Reuben, Eliot Hazeltine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Limitations in our ability to produce two responses at the same time - that is, dual-task interference - are typically measured by comparing performance when two stimuli are presented and two responses are made in close temporal proximity to when a single stimulus is presented and a single response is made. While straightforward, this approach leaves open multiple possible sources for observed differences. For example, on dual-task trials, it is typically necessary to identify two stimuli nearly simultaneously, whereas on typical single-task trials, only one stimulus is presented at a time. These processes are different from selecting and producing two distinct responses and complicate the interpretation of dual- and single-task performance differences. Ideally, performance when two tasks are executed should be compared to conditions in which only a single task is executed, while holding constant all other stimuli, response, and control processing. We introduce an alternative dual-task procedure designed to approach this ideal. It holds stimulus processing constant while manipulating the number of "tasks." Participants produced unimanual or bimanual responses to pairs of stimuli. For one set of stimuli (two-task set), the mappings were organized so an image of a face and a building were mapped to particular responses (including no response) on the left or right hands. For the other set of stimuli (one-task set), the stimuli indicated the same set of responses, but there was not a one-to-one mapping between the individual stimuli and responses. Instead, each stimulus pair had to be considered together to determine the appropriate unimanual or bimanual response. While the stimulus pairs were highly similar and the responses identical across the two conditions, performance was strikingly different. For the two-task set condition, bimanual responses were made more slowly than unimanual responses, reflecting typical dual-task interference, whereas for the one-task set, unimanual responses were made more slowly than bimanual. These findings indicate that dual-task costs occur, at least in part, because of the interfering effects of task representation rather than simply the additional stimulus, response, or other processing typically required on dual-task trials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1031
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberJUN
StatePublished - Jun 25 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Cognitive control mechanisms
  • Mental representation
  • Multi-task learning
  • Psychological refractory period
  • Response selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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