The role of stimulus-specific perceptual fluency in statistical learning


Humans have the ability to learn surprisingly complicated statistical information in a variety of modalities and situations, often based on relatively little input. These statistical learning (SL) skills appear to underlie many kinds of learning, but despite their ubiquity, we still do not fully understand precisely what SL is and what individual differences on SL tasks reflect. Here we present experimental work suggesting that at least some individual differences arise from stimulus-specicfic variation in perceptual fluency: the ability to rapidly or efficiently code and remember the stimuli that statistical learning occurs over. Experiment 1 demonstrates that participants show improved statistical learning when the stimuli are simple and familiar; Experiment 2 shows that this improvement is not evident for simple but unfamiliar stimuli; and Experiment 3 shows that for the same stimuli (Chinese characters), statistical learning is higher for people who are familiar with them (Chinese speakers) than those who are not (English speakers matched on age and education level). Overall, our findings indicate that performance on a standard SL task varies substantially within the same (visual) modality as a function of whether the stimuli involved are familiar or not, independent of stimulus complexity. Moreover, test-retest correlations of performance in a statistical learning task using stimuli of the same level of familiarity (but distinct items) are stronger than correlations across the same task with stimuli of different levels of familiarity. Finally, we demonstrate that statistical learning performance is predicted by an independent measure of stimulus-specific perceptual fluency that contains no statistical learning component at all. Our results suggest that a key component of statistical learning performance may be related to stimulus-specific processing and familiarity.

Preprint submitted for publication
Andrew Perfors
Associate Professor

I seek to understand how people reason and think, both on their own and in groups.