Increased cognitive load enables unlearning in procedural category learning

Matthew J. Crossley*, W. Todd Maddox, F. Gregory Ashby

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Interventions for drug abuse and other maladaptive habitual behaviors may yield temporary success but are often fragile and relapse is common. This implies that current interventions do not erase or substantially modify the representations that support the underlying addictive behavior-that is, they do not cause true unlearning. One example of an intervention that fails to induce true unlearning comes from Crossley, Ashby, and Maddox (2013, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General), who reported that a sudden shift to random feedback did not cause unlearning of category knowledge obtained through procedural systems, and they also reported results suggesting that this failure is because random feedback is noncontingent on behavior. These results imply the existence of a mechanism that (a) estimates feedback contingency and (b) protects procedural learning from modification when feedback contingency is low (i.e., during random feedback). This article reports the results of an experiment in which increasing cognitive load via an explicit dual task during the random feedback period facilitated unlearning. This result is consistent with the hypothesis that the mechanism that protects procedural learning when feedback contingency is low depends on executive function.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1845-1853
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • feedback contingency
  • category learning
  • unlearning
  • declarative memory
  • procedural memory


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