In modifying our behavior to adapt to a changing environment, we often find it challenging to relearn tasks. In a new study, researchers found that when rules change, we can adjust — but it takes time, practice and hard work.
Moreover, study findings suggest mastery of the new rules often comes at the price of a loss of attention to detail.
Hans Schroder, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Michigan State University, and colleagues determined successful behavioral modification involves overriding the rules we adhere to on a daily basis.
This requires substantial attention and effort, and we do not always get it right the first time. When we switch between two or more tasks, we are slower and more likely to commit errors, which suggest switching tasks is a costly process.
This may explain why it is so hard to learn from our mistakes when rules change.
“Switching the rules we use to perform a task makes us less aware of our mistakes. We therefore have a harder time learning from them. That’s because switching tasks is mentally taxing and costly, which leads us to pay less attention to the detail and therefore make more mistakes,” Schroder said.
In the study, 67 undergraduates were asked to wear a cap, which recorded electrical activity in the brain. They then performed a computer task that is easy to make mistakes on.
Specifically, the participants were shown letter strings like “MMMMM” or “NNMNN” and were told to follow a simple rule: if “M” is in the middle, press the left button; if “N” is in the middle, press the right button.
After they had followed this rule for almost 50 trials, they were instructed to perform the same task, but with the rules reversed; i.e., now if “M” is in the middle, press the right button; and if “N” is in the middle, press the left button.
Not surprisingly, when the rules were reversed, participants made more consecutive errors. Furthermore, they were more likely to get it wrong twice in a row.
Investigators believe this behavior shows that individuals were less apt to bounce back and learn from their mistakes. Reversing the rules also produced greater control-related and less error-awareness brain activity.
In summary, the results suggest that when rules are reversed, our brain works harder to juggle the two rules — the new rule and the old rule — and stay focused on the new rule. As a result of the increased brain activity to determine the appropriate rule, we have less brain power available for recognizing our mistakes.
The study is published online in the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience.