More than a matter of getting 'unstuck': Flexible thinkers use more abstract representations than perseverators

Maria Kharitonova*, Sarina Chien, Eliana Colunga, Yuko Munakata

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Why do people perseverate, repeating prior behaviours that are no longer appropriate? Many accounts point to isolated deficits in processes such as inhibition or attention. We instead posit a fundamental difference in rule representations: flexible switchers use active representations that rely on later-developing prefrontal cortical areas and are more abstract, whereas perseverators use latent representations that rely on earlier-developing posterior cortical and subcortical areas and are more stimulus-specific. Thus, although switchers and perseverators should apply the rules they use to familiar stimuli equally reliably, perseverators should show unique limitations in generalizing their rules to novel stimuli, a process that requires abstract representations. Two behavioural experiments confirmed this counterintuitive prediction early in development. Three-year-old children sorted cards by one rule, were asked to switch to another rule, and then were asked simply to continue their behaviour, with novel cards. Perseverators applied the rule they were using (the first rule) just as reliably as switchers applied the rule they were using (the second rule) with familiar cards; however, only switchers generalized their rule to novel cards. This finding supports an early link between active representations that support switching and abstract representations that support generalization. We interpret this synergy in terms of prefrontal cortical development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)662-669
Number of pages8
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

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