Barbara Treccani


People face constantly the need to choose the action that is more appropriate in a given context.The presence of shared properties between the stimuli to which they have to respond and the possible responses (stimulus-response, S-R,  compatibility) can play tricks on response selection and lead people to emit responses they did not want to.

How does this happen and how can people avoid performing actions that are inappropriate? Which aspects of stimuli can trigger unwanted responses? Furthermore, what happens when people are simultaneously executing more than one task? How do automatic and controlled processes involved by these tasks interact with each other? Are there people that are more efficient than others in inhibiting irrelevant responses? Is there a way to improve our ability of doing so?

Processes involved in response selection are relevant topics per se: their understanding is interesting in itself and has important implications for improving the efficiency of these process both in typical, physiological conditions and in people in which these processes are defective, thanks to rehabilitation/training programs, or simply by designing effective response devices. Indeed, the understanding of these processes can make critical contributions to the field of human factors and ergonomics and help designers to engineer tools, instruments and systems that take into account the way in which people interact with them.

However, the mistakes that people make when selecting a response are also a way to investigate other critical phenomena. In my research work, I exploit S-R compatibility and other response-selection tricks to investigate different aspects of cognition. 

Research directions

Stimulus awareness, attentional processes, and spatial coding

Response selection mistakes can tell us that the processing of some aspects of stimuli is mandatory and people cannot ignore them: although such aspects are irrelevant and one does not want to pay attention on them, they are nevertheless processed and trigger unwanted actions. Response-selection errors also show that we can be completely unaware of information that drives our behaviours and can be used to investigate to what extent we can work on stimuli without becoming aware of them.

For example, by using S-R compatibility tasks, it has been possible to show that people can spatially code a visual stimulus (i.e., they represent its position) that they are not aware of. This unconscious spatial code is formed regardless of whether we move attention towards the stimulus, and can influence the speed and accuracy of responses to other stimuli.

Even if spatial coding of visual stimuli might be necessary for conscious perception, it is certainly not sufficient.

Numerical cognition and magnitude representation 

Mistakes made when we are selecting a response to a stimulus can also shed light on the way in which we represent this stimulus. S-R compatibility phenomena are observed even when stimulus and response sets are not perceptually similar, and seem not to have features in common (e.g., stimuli are digits and responses are left and right keypresses).

In these cases, S-R compatibility effects result from similarities between the way stimulus and response dimensions are represented.

By using S-R compatibility tasks that involve spatial responses, it has been shown that there is a special relation between magnitude (i.e. size, distance, numerousness, height, weight, etc.) and space: we tend to represent “small” things (e.g., the number 1, an ant) as “on the left”, while “large” things (e.g., the number 100, an elephant) tend to be represented as “on the right”. According to some authors, magnitude representations are inherently spatial (spatial coding of stimulus magnitude is necessary and unavoidable). In contrast, according to others, the link between magnitude and space is strategic in nature.

Automatic vs. controlled response-inhibition processes and their sequential modulation

One of the most relevant and controversial issues about response selection is the way in which people inhibit unrequired responses. Recent studies have revealed that irrelevant information not only can trigger inappropriate, unwanted, responses, which then have to be (voluntarily) inhibited, but can also lead to the automatic inhibition of the appropriate response.

Behavioural, neuroimaging and electrophysiological methods are used to investigate the interplay between automatic and controlled inhibitory processes in response selection, and to examine the impact of the processes involved in one given circumstance on processes that are involved afterwards, when another response needs to be selected.

Individual differences in cognitive control: the case of bilingualism and its alleged cognitive non-linguistic effects

The size of interference effects observed in S-R compatibility tasks are considered an index of the ability to inhibit unwanted responses: the more a person is able to inhibit the unrequired response, the less this response interferes with the selection of the required one.

An interesting question is whether there are activities that can improve our ability to inhibit inappropriate responses, and, therefore, whether there are people who, due to massive practice in these activities, are better than others in inhibitory control, thus showing smaller interference effects in S-R compatibility tasks. 

In recent years, the idea that people speaking two or more languages have such an inhibitory control advantage has aroused great interest. The advocates of the bilingual advantage in inhibitory control assume that the bilinguals’ practice in inhibiting one language when they speak the other and in switching among languages improve domain-general control processes. 

Results of several studies support this view, but there are also studies suggesting that a publication bias in favour of positive results (i.e., results showing more efficient inhibitory control abilities in bilinguals) may skew the overall literature on bilingualism and cognitive functions.

Between-task transfer of stimulus-response rules

Most of the past research about response selection has examined factors affecting performance in single, specific tasks. However, tasks are almost never performed in isolation. Therefore, recent studies also focus on the way in which response selection in a task is affected by the tasks that participants have performed before, are going to perform after, or are concurrently engaged in.

In the case of two tasks performed either sequentially or simultaneously (i.e., in the transfer-of-learning and task-switching paradigms, respectively), there is considerable interest in whether and how the stimulus-response mappings contained in the instructions of a task can transfer and affect performance in the coupled task. 

Task co-representation and division of labour in task-sharing 

Response selection can also be affected by what other individuals are doing . Very often, people have to perform actions along with other people - for example when they dance, play games or sports that involve more than one player, work with others to plan, design, build things.

The representation of the co-actor’s task can affect the selection of our own responses. By analysing the effect of task-sharing on individual performances, we can understand how people coordinate their actions, and set out a proper division of labour, in order to perform a task with others. 

This also allows us to investigate whether there are perceptual, emotional, or social factors that can modulate the effect of task-sharing on individual performances: are task co-representation and division of labour influenced by the way the co-actor looks (e.g., whether s/he is perceived as an in-group or out-group member) or the task-sharing setting is arranged (e.g., the actor and co-actor’s reciprocal positions)? are they influenced by the instructions given to participants (e.g., whether instructions emphasize collaboration or competition), the level of reciprocal knowledge between the actor and co-actor, the emphatic abilities of co-acting people? 

Internal collaborations

Roberto Cubelli, full Professor
Remo Job, full Professor
Luca Ronconi, post-doc

External collaborations

Sergio Della Sala, University of Edinburgh, UK
Roberta Sellaro, Leiden University, NL
Marco Zorzi, University of Padova, Italy
Giorgia Cona, University of Padova, Italy

Selected publications

  • Treccani B, Cona G, Milanese N, Umiltà C. (2017). Sequential modulation of (bottom-up) response activation and inhibition in a response conflict task: a single-pulse transcranial magnetic stimulation study. PSYCHOLOGICAL RESEARCH, Advanced Online Publication, ISSN: 0340-0727, doi: 10.1007/S00426-017-0863-9
  • Treccani B, Ronconi , Umiltà C. (2017). Role of stimulus and response feature overlap in between-task logical recoding. PSYCHOLOGICAL RESEARCH, vol. 81, P. 157-167, ISSN: 0340-0727, doi: 10.1007/S00426-015-0728-Z
  • Cona G*, Treccani B.*, Umiltà C. (2016) (*Cona G. and Treccani B. are shared first authors on this work) Is cognitive control automatic? New insights from transcranial magnetic stimulation. PSYCHONOMIC BULLETIN & REVIEW, vol. 23, p. 1624-1630, ISSN: 1069-9384,  doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1023-8
  • De Bruin A, Treccani B, Della Sala S (2015). Cognitive advantage in bilingualism: An example of publication bias?. PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE, vol. 26, p. 99-107, ISSN: 0956-7976,  doi: 10.1177/0956797614557866. 
  • Treccani B., Mulatti C (2015). No matter who, no matter how… and no matter whether the white matter matters. Why theories of bilingual advantage in executive functioning are so difficult to falsify. CORTEX, vol. 73, p. 349-351, ISSN:0010-9452, doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2015.07.015. pp.349-351. 
  • Sellaro R*, Treccani B*, Remo J, Cubelli R (*Sellaro R. and Treccani B. are shared first authors on this work) (2015). Spatial coding of object typical size: Evidence for a SNARC-like effect. PSYCHOLOGICAL RESEARCH, vol. 79, p. 950-962, ISSN: 0340-0727,  doi: 10.1007/s00426-014-0636-7
  • Sellaro R, Treccani B, Rubichi S, Cubelli R (2013). When co-action eliminates the Simon effect: disentangling the impact of co-actor's presence and task sharing on joint-task performance. FRONTIERS IN PSYCHOLOGY, vol. 4, 844, ISSN: 1664-1078,  doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00844
  • Treccani B, Cubelli R, Sellaro R, Umiltà C, Della Sala S (2012). Dissociation between awareness and spatial coding: evidence from unilateral neglect. JOURNAL OF COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE, vol. 24, p. 854-867, ISSN: 0898-929X
  • Treccani B, Milanese N, Umiltà C (2010). Influence on Simon and SNARC effects of a nonspatial stimulus response mapping: between-task logical recoding. JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY-HUMAN PERCEPTION AND PERFORMANCE, vol. 36, p. 1239-1254, ISSN: 0096-1523
  • Treccani B, Argyri E, Sorace A, Della Sala S (2009). Spatial negative priming in bilingualism. PSYCHONOMIC BULLETIN & REVIEW, vol. 16, p. 320-327, ISSN: 1069-9384,  doi: 10.3758/X


Research activities have been funded by: Ministero dell’istruzione dell’Università e della Ricerca, Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo, European Research Council, Provincia Autonoma di Trento.