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Dual Routes to Cognitive Flexibility: Learning and Response-Conflict Resolution in the Dimensional Change Card Sort Task


  • This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grants 0547775 and 0624345 and by the National Science Foundation/IGERT Training Program in the Dynamics of Brain-Body-Environment Systems at Indiana University. We are grateful to Natasha Kirkham, Sharon Thompson-Schill, and Stewart McCauley for discussion of these ideas.


Cognitive control, the ability to align our actions with goals or context, is largely absent in children under four. How then are preschoolers able to tailor their behavior to best match the situation? Learning may provide an alternative route to context-sensitive responding. This study investigated this hypothesis in the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS), a classic test of cognitive control that most under-fours fail. A training intervention based on learning theoretic principles proved highly effective: Three-year-olds who learned about DCCS rules and game contexts in a card-labeling task, subsequently transferred this knowledge to sorting in the DCCS, passing at more than 3 times the rate of controls (N = 47). This surprising finding reveals much about the nature of the developing mind.