The Dynamics of Cognition and Action: Mental Processes Inferred From Speed-Accuracy Decomposition

David E. Meyer, David E. Irwin, Allen M. Osman, John Kounios

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Measurements of reaction time have played a major role in developing theories about the mental processes that underlie sensation, perception, memory, cognition, and action. The interpretation of reaction time data requires strong assumptions about how subjects trade accuracy for speed of performance and about whether there is a discrete or continuous transmission of information from one component process to the next. Conventional reaction time and speed-accuracy trade-off procedures are not, by themselves, sufficiently powerful to test these assumptions. However, the deficiency can be remedied in part through a new speed-accuracy decomposition technique. To apply the technique, one uses a hybrid mixture of (a) conventional reaction time trials in which subjects must process a given test stimulus with high accuracy and (b) peremptory response-signal trials in which subjects must make prompted guesses before stimulus processing has been finished. Data from this "titrated reaction time procedure" are then analyzed in terms of a parallel sophisticated-guessing model, under which normal mental processes and guessing processes are assumed to race against each other in producing overt responses. With the model, one may estimate the amount of partial information that subjects have accumulated about a test stimulus at each intermediate moment during a reaction time trial. Such estimates provide deeper insights into the rate at which partial information is accumulated over time and into discrete versus continuous modes of information processing. An application of speed-accuracy decomposition to studies of word recognition illustrates the potential power of the technique.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)183-237
Number of pages55
JournalPsychological review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1988
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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