Limited evidence for executive function load impairing selective copying in a win-stay lose-shift task

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


  • Juliet Dunstone
  • Mark Atkinson
  • Catherine Grainger
  • Elizabeth Renner
  • Christine A. Caldwell

External organisations

  • University of Birmingham


The use of ‘explicitly metacognitive’ learning strategies has been proposed as an explanation for uniquely human capacities for cumulative culture. Such strategies are proposed to rely on explicit, system-2 cognitive processes, to enable advantageous selective copying. To investigate the plausibility of this theory, we investigated participants’ ability to make flexible learning decisions, and their metacognitive monitoring efficiency, under executive function (EF) load. Adult participants completed a simple win-stay lose-shift (WSLS) paradigm task, intended to model a situation where presented information can be used to inform response choice, by copying rewarded responses and avoiding those that are unrewarded. This was completed alongside a concurrent switching task. Participants were split into three conditions: those that needed to use a selective copying, WSLS strategy, those that should always copy observed information, and those that should always do the opposite (Expt 1). Participants also completed a metacognitive monitoring task alongside the concurrent switching task (Expt 2). Conditions demanding selective strategies were more challenging than those requiring the use of one rule consistently. In addition, consistently copying was less challenging than consistently avoiding observed stimuli. Differences between selectively copying and always copying were hypothesised to stem from working memory requirements rather than the concurrent EF load. No impact of EF load was found on participants’ metacognitive monitoring ability. These results suggest that copying decisions are underpinned by the use of executive functions even at a very basic level, and that selective copying strategies are more challenging than a combination of their component parts. We found minimal evidence that selective copying strategies relied on executive functions any more than consistent copying or deviation. However, task experience effects suggested that ceiling effects could have been masking differences between conditions which might be apparent in other contexts, such as when observed information must be retained in memory.


Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0247183
JournalPLOS One
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes