Research Article: Evidence of automatic processing in sequence learning using process-dissociation

Date Published: May 21, 2012

Publisher: University of Finance and Management in Warsaw

Author(s): Heather M. Mong, David P. McCabe, Benjamin A. Clegg.


This paper proposes a way to apply process-dissociation to sequence learning in
addition and extension to the approach used by Destrebecqz and Cleeremans (2001). Participants were trained on two
sequences separated from each other by a short break. Following training,
participants self-reported their knowledge of the sequences. A recognition test
was then performed which required discrimination of two trained sequences,
either under the instructions to call any sequence encountered in the experiment
“old” (the inclusion condition), or only sequence fragments from one half of the
experiment “old” (the exclusion condition). The recognition test elicited
automatic and controlled process estimates using the process dissociation
procedure, and suggested both processes were involved. Examining the underlying
processes supporting performance may provide more information on the fundamental
aspects of the implicit and explicit constructs than has been attainable through
awareness testing.

Partial Text

The serial reaction time task (SRTT) has become an extremely productive method for
studying sequence learning (for reviews, see Abrahamse, Jimenez, Verwey, & Clegg, 2010; Clegg, DiGirolamo, & Keele, 1998). In their original study,
Nissen and Bullemer (1987) found that choice
reaction time improved to an embedded repeating pattern of locations. Moreover,
improvement occurred even without apparent full awareness of the sequence, and such
learning was also present in amnesic patients, despite their obvious lack of
awareness of the sequence. Although A. Reber (1967) was the first to use the term implicit learning,
there has been longstanding interest in situations in which learning is apparently
unaccompanied by awareness of the material being learned (Ebbinghaus, 1885/1913; Hebb,
1961; Thorndike & Rock, 1934).
The distinction between at least two systems is core to a number of theoretical
accounts (e.g., Keele, Ivry, Mayr, Hazeltine, &
Heuer, 2003; Lewicki, Czyzewska, &
Hoffman, 1987; A. Reber, 1989;
Willingham & Goedert-Eschmann,

The current study replicated the well-established finding that participants learn a
repeated sequence of items within the SRTT paradigm, with shorter latencies in the
trained sequences than in the novel sequences encountered towards the end of each
training segment. The process estimate data provide evidence consistent with
automatic processes operating. However, while the results support a role for
automatic processing, the recognition test also shows an influence of controlled
processing that highlights the presence of both types of processes in this task.