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Individual Differences in Information Processing Units

Ward, William C.
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Bulletin
Document Type:
Page Count:
Subject/Key Words:
Cognitive Style, Computer Software, Individual Characteristics, Information Processing, Models


A first attempt to isolate consistent individual differences at a level "more molecular than that normally explored" is described. These are dimensions of difference which might be components of abilities or "cognitive styles." The source of the information processing units whose characteristics are examined here is work by Sternberg (1969). Sternberg gave a short list of digits (the "target set") to be remembered in a recognition memory task. On each test trial, the subject was shown a single digit; he was to press one key if the digit were a target set member; another if it were not. Task performance (latency to correct response) was broken down into four stages: 1) encoding the stimulus; 2) searching memory for a match between this stimulus and a target set member; 3) deciding whether a match had been found; and 4) organizing and producing a response. Cross-situation consistency was analyzed by comparing individual performance in the recognition memory task with that in a perceptual matching task. Students were shown two pictures and asked to decide if they were the same or different. Performance in the matching task can be examined in four stages: 1) stimulus encoding; 2) searching to discover a match; 3) determining if a match had been found; and 4) organizing and producing a response. The memory and matching tasks have parallel requirements. 28 paid volunteers from a small college were subjects. Subjects were tested in two sessions three to five days apart. Latencies were scored only for trials on which the subject made a correct response. Only latencies to correct responses from the last 33 trials of blocks 4, 5, 7, and 8 were scored. Scores indicating the effects for each subject of stimulus degrading, category membership and response probability were involved in the major analysis. Individuals differ in the degree to which their performance is slowed by a degraded stimulus input; these differences are highly consistent both within and across tasks. The encoding stage of the Sternberg model has cross-situation generality. No strong evidence was found for generality of two further stages of the model. There was some consistency within one task over sessions, but no consistency across tasks. It remains to be seen whether parameters associated with stages other than the encoding can be measured more adequately or more generally; and whether these parameters aid in clarifying the processes underlying performance in more complex tasks. (SGK) (22pp.)

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