An increasing number of empirical phenomena that were previously interpreted as a result of cognitive control, turn out to reflect (in part) simple associative-learning effects. A prime example is the proportion congruency effect, the finding that interference effects (such as the Stroop effect) decrease as the proportion of incongruent stimuli increases. While this was previously regarded as strong evidence for a global conflict monitoring-cognitive control loop, recent evidence has shown that the proportion congruency effect is largely item-specific and hence must be due to associative learning. The goal of our research was to test a recent hypothesis about the mechanism underlying such associative-learning effects, the conflict-modulated Hebbian-learning hypothesis, which proposes that the effect of conflict on associative learning is mediated by phasic arousal responses. In Experiment 1, we examined in detail the relationship between the item-specific proportion congruency effect and an autonomic measure of phasic arousal: task-evoked pupillary responses. In Experiment 2, we used a task-irrelevant phasic arousal manipulation and examined the effect on item-specific learning of incongruent stimulus-response associations. The results provide little evidence for the conflict-modulated Hebbian-learning hypothesis, which requires additional empirical support to remain tenable.
Brown, S. B. R. E., van Steenbergen, H., Kedar, T., & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2014). Effects of arousal on cognitive control: empirical tests of the conflict-modulated Hebbian-learning hypothesis. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00023