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Chair for General and Applied Psychology

Cognitive Control Lab

In my research, I focus on processes of cognitive control. Cognitive control enables humans to dynamically adjust thought and action to changing goals and task demands. To give just one example, cognitive control enables to resist a strong but currently inappropriate response tendency (reaching for your cell phone to look for possible messages) in favor of a weaker but adequate response (listening to your partner).

Broadly speaking, my research interests revolve around the following issues:

(1) Task switching and the functional role of task rules.

(2) Context-sensitive adjustment of cognitive control.

(3) Conflicts as aversive signals for control adaptations.

(4) Affective and motivational modulation of cognitive control.

(5) Training of cognitive control functions.


Current Research Projects (funded by DFG)

DR 392/12-1, FI 1624/7-1 The (in)flexibility of control adaptations

Funding Period: 36 months (about to start)

Adaptive control forms the basis of cognitive and behavioral flexibility. It is sensitive to normal aging and its malfunction is closely related to neurological and psychiatric conditions. In general, human beings have the astonishing ability to flexibly adapt action and thought in response to changing requirements from the environment. At the same time, they can be surprisingly stuck in set, for example when they continue using a formerly successful but no longer adaptive processing strategy. Such stuck-in-set phenomena, originally reported in problem solving tasks (Luchins, 1942) are not restricted to neuropsychological abnormalities like perseveration in frontal lobe patients but have recently also been reported for control strategies in context processing- and response conflict-tasks in healthy individuals (e.g., Abrahamse, Duthoo, Notebaert, & Risko, 2013; Hefer & Dreisbach, 2017). In this research project, we intend to investigate two so far highly neglected phenomena that expose a weakness of the much-vaunted cognitive flexibility: (1) The asymmetrical costs when switching between a shielded and a more relaxed mode of control, which show that it can be harder to let go from a shielding control mode and switch to a more relaxed control mode than vice versa.  And (2) the observation that the flexibility to adapt control to different context demands is further limited by the volatility and frequency of context changes. The importance of adaptive control for cognitive and behavioral flexibility highlights the need for understanding the underlying cognitive mechanisms (e.g., the flexible (dis)engagement of different control states), which may offer fertile grounds for subsequent translational research.

PI projetct 1:  Prof. Dr. Gesine Dreisbach

PI project 2:  Prof. Dr. Rico Fischer

Ph.D.: N. N. 

Ph.D.: N. N. 

DR 392/10-1 Mechanisms underlying flexible task choice: Investigating reward and context effects

Funding Period: Starting October 2019 (for 3 years)

Goal directed behavior in a constantly changing environment requires a dynamic balance between two antagonistic modes of control: on the one hand, goals need to be maintained and shielded from distraction (stability), and, on the other hand, goals need to be relaxed and flexibly updated whenever significant changes occur (flexibility). To investigate the flexible modulation of task choice, we will use the voluntary task switching paradigm. In the first part of the project, we will investigate the mechanisms underlying the context effect, which describes the observation that humans switch more often voluntarily when they are in a context of frequent forced choices. The second part of the project will be devoted to the question why humans switch more often to a different task when reward prospect increases and why they show more stable behavior when reward prospect remains unchanged. To answer these questions, we will rely on behavioral measures (task choice, reaction times, error rates, and subjective effort costs), pupillometry (to measure effort and arousal) and electrophysiological correlates of preparatory activity. The overarching goal is to deepen our understanding how context and motivation impact flexible task choice.

PI: Prof. Dr. Gesine Dreisbach

Contributing: Dr. Kerstin Fröber

Ph.D.: MSc. Jonathan Mendl

Completed Research Projects

DR 392/9-1 Training Executive Functions: Lessons learned from prefrontal cortex physiology

PI: Prof. Dr. Gesine Dreisbach, Prof. Dr. Nachshon Meiran (Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel)

Ph.D. students: Katrina Sabah

Funding Period: 2016-2019

Executive functions (EFs) enable us to flexibly adjust our thoughts and actions according to rapidly changing constraints to optimize goal attainment. EF rely on a network of brain areas including the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and are heavily involved in complex problem solving, cognitive development, and aging-related cognitive decline. Moreover, most psychopathological problems go along with impairments in EF.  Consequently, there has been growing interest in finding ways to improve EF, with special attention given to computerized training.  However, the results so far are equivocal. Some reviews have reached optimistic conclusions.  Yet, meta-analytic reviews indicate that while there are reliable practice effects (improvement seen in the training task) and relatively modest near transfer effects (improvement in structurally similar tasks), far transfer effects (improvements in structurally dissimilar tasks that presumably tap the trained EF) are predominantly tiny.  We argue that the design of most of the current computerized EF training programs is not well grounded in extant theories of PFC neurophysiology. In this research project we will test two related hypotheses concerning why the success of computerized training had so far proven very modest: (1) From PFC physiology, far transfer is not to be expected in the first place unless the abstract task structure that is learned during training is mirrored in the transfer task. (2) How EF-training is currently designed results in negative transfer effects (performance deterioration due to practice) which mask the (already quite small) beneficial transfer effects.  These negative transfer effects occur because (a) the application of (instructed task rules) increases shielding and (b) because the repetitive nature of the training (constant repetition of a small number of training tasks) minimizes the involvement of EF.

DR 392/8-1 The influence of sequentially changing reward prospect on cognitive flexibility during (voluntary) task switching

(Part of DFG Priority Program SPP 1772: Human performance under multiple cognitive task requirements: From basic mechanisms to optimized task scheduling)

1st Funding Period: 1. Oktober 2015 - 30. September 2018

Attending to two (or more) tasks at the same time requires cognitive flexibility and is associated with performance decrements as compared to single task performance. In cognitive psychology, the task switching paradigm has become a popular tool to investigate a specific kind of multitasking performance, namely performing more than one task in a sequential and random order. In this paradigm, task switches afford cognitive flexibility, whereas task repetitions benefit from cognitive stability. This makes the task switching paradigm an ideal tool to investigate the interplay of two antagonistic control modes, namely flexibility and stability.

Considering the increasing importance of successful multitasking performance in modern society it is essential to identify ways to differentially motivate flexible and stable behavior. Recent evidence (Shen & Chun, 2011; Fröber & Dreisbach, in press) suggests that specifically increases in expected reward magnitude increase flexibility whereas the prospect of unchanged high reward increases stability: Predetermined task switches are facilitated and the willingness to deliberately switch the task is increased as compared to unchanged high reward prospect. Aim of the proposed research program is to further investigate how sequential changes in reward prospect differentially influence stability versus flexibility during (voluntary) task switching.

In one part of the first funding period, we want to investigate the boundary conditions of the modulation of cognitive flexibility by sequentially changing reward magnitudes. Therefore, we will manipulate global context parameters like the ratio of forced to voluntary task switching, specific instructions given to the participant (on how to choose freely), the absolute vs. relative amount of reward prospect, and varying task difficulties. In the other part, we will focus on the interaction of task expectancies and reward expectancies. Increased cognitive flexibility should facilitate adaptation to unexpected events. Therefore, we want to investigate how sequentially changing reward prospect modulates performance under violations of expectation and increased uncertainty using different procedures of voluntary and forced task switching. The overarching goal of this research program is to deepen our understanding of how global context parameters and motivation modulate processes of cognitive flexibility. As such, the project contributes to the second cluster of the priority program (“Flexibility”).

PI: Prof. Dr. Gesine Dreisbach

Projektmitarbeiter: Dr. Kerstin Fröber, M.Sc. Vanessa Jurczyk

DR 392/7-1 Der Einfluss von positivem Affekt und Belohnung auf Prozesse kognitiver Kontrolle.

1. Förderperiode: 1. Oktober 2014 - 30. September 2017

Seit Mitte der 80er Jahre des vergangenen Jahrhunderts mehren sich die empirischen Belege, dass milder positiver Affekt qualitative Effekte auf die kognitive Informationsverarbeitung hat. Die neuropsychologischen Grundlagen werden gemäß der Dopamintheorie des positiven Affekts (Dopamine theory of positive affect; Ashby, Isen & Turken, 1999; Ashby, Valentin, & Turken, 2002)  in einer mit positivem Affekt einhergehenden erhöhten dompaminergen Aktivität gesehen (s. auch Dreisbach & Goschke, 2004; Dreisbach et al., 2005). Da Dopamin auch in engem Zusammenhang mit dem Erhalt einer unerwarteten Belohnung steht (z.B. Schulz, 1997) und Belohnung typischerweise mit positivem Affekt einhergeht, wurde in der kognitionspsychologischen Literatur häufig kaum bzw. unzureichend zwischen positivem Affekt und Belohnung als unabhängiger Variable unterschieden (s. Chiew & Braver, 2011; Dreisbach & Fischer, 2012). In dem beantragten Projekt sollen die differentiellen Einflüsse von positivem Affekt einerseits und (verhaltensabhängiger und -unabhängiger) Belohnung andererseits auf kognitive Kontrollprozesse vergleichend untersucht werden. Diese Forschung soll einen Beitrag zur aktuellen Diskussion über das Zusammenspiel von motivationalen und emotionalen Einflüssen auf kognitive Kontrolle leisten. 

Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Gesine Dreisbach

Projektmitarbeiterin: Dipl. Psych. Carmen Hefer

DR 392/ 6-x Reaktionskonflikt und perzeptuelle Verarbeitungsflüssigkeit als affektive Signale der Handlungssteuerung (Response conflict and perceptual fluency as affective signals for control adjustment)

 1. Förderperiode: 1. Mai 2012 - 30. April 2015
 2. Förderperiode: 2016 - 2019

In dem Projekt geht es um die Rolle von affektiven Stimulus-Eigenschaften auf Prozesse der sequentiellen Konfliktmodulation, ein Mechanismus der durch die Konfliktüberwachungstheorie von Botvinick et al. (2001) beschrieben wird. Neuere Überlegungen schreiben Reaktionskonflikten aversive Eigenschaften zu. Ein Teil des Projekts wird sich damit befassen, empirische Evidenzen für diese bislang kaum belegte Annahme der affektiven Valenz von Reaktionskonflikten zu erbringen. Subjektiv geht ein Reaktionskonflikt mit spürbaren (und objektiv messbaren) Reaktionsverlangsamungen einher. Daher wird angenommen, dass der aversive Charakter von Reaktionskonflikten auf diese reduzierte Verarbeitungsflüssigkeit
zurückzuführen ist. Da die affektive Valenz der Verarbeitungsflüssigkeit als gut
belegt gilt (s. Oppenheimer, 2008), wird in einem weiteren Teil des Projekts der Frage nachgegangen, welche Rolle die perzeptuelle Verarbeitungsflüssigkeit (als affektives Signal) bei der sequentiellen Konfliktregulation spielt. Experimentell wird dazu die perzeptuelle Verarbeitungsflüssigkeit (z.B. über die Lesbarkeit der Stimuli) unabhängig von der motorischen Verarbeitungsflüssigkeit (durch die Anvs.
Abwesenheit eines Reaktionskonflikts) manipuliert. Sollte sich bestätigen, dass sowohl motorische als auch perzeptuelle Verarbeitungsflüssigkeit zur sequentiellen Verhaltenssteuerung genutzt werden, würde dies den Anwendungsbereich der Konfliktüberwachungstheorie maßgeblich erweitern.

Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Gesine Dreisbach
Projektmitarbeiterin: Anja Berger

DFG 392/5-x Funktionalität von Task Sets bei der Aufmerksamkeitssteuerung (Functional role of task sets for attentional and action control)

3. Förderung: DR 392/5-3 (1. Juni 2012 - 31. Mai 2013)

2. Förderung: DR 392/5-2 (1. Januar 2009 - 31. Mai 2012, 4 Monate
1. Förderung: DR 392/5-1 (1. Januar 2007 - 31. Dez. 2009)

Eine der fundamentalen Fähigkeiten menschlicher Kognition besteht darin, die für eine aktuelle Absicht relevanten Aufgabenmerkmale zu beachten und irrelevante Merkmale auszublenden. Im Mittelpunkt der Untersuchungen steht die Frage, wie diese Fokussierung der Aufmerksamkeit bei gleichzeitiger Abschirmung gegenüber möglichen Störeinflüssen aus der Umwelt ermöglicht wird. Woher "weiß" das kognitive System, welche Merkmale relevante Merkmale im Sinne der Aufgabenstellung sind und entsprechende Beachtung verdienen und welche nicht? Und wovon hängt es ab, ob scheinbar irrelevante Merkmale dennoch Zugang zur Aufgabenrepräsentation erlangen? Ich nehme an, dass Task Sets bei der Aufmerksamkeitssteuerung eine zentrale Rolle einnehmen. In Voruntersuchungen zum geplanten Projekt konnte bereits gezeigt werden, dass ein irrelevantes Stimulusmerkmal (z.B. die Farbe des gezeigten Stimulus) die Aufgabenbearbeitung in einer seriellen Reaktionszeitaufgabe nachhaltig beeinflusst, nicht aber, wenn der Bearbeitung eben dieser Stimuli ein Task Set (eine kategoriale Entscheidung) zugrunde gelegt wurde (Dreisbach & Haider, 2008, 2009).

Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Gesine Dreisbach
Projektmitarbeiter: Dr. Manja Metzker (2007-2009, Promotion 2009)
                             Dr. Renate Reisenauer (2010-2013, Promotion 2014)

  1. Fakultät für Hunanwissenschaften
  2. Institut für Psychologie

Chair for General and Applied Psychology

Prof. dr. gesine dreisbach

Claudia Lehnes

Raum: PT 4.1.31

Telefon 0941 943-3816

Fax 0941 943-1995