Investigating the role of associative learning capacity in cue acquisition and expertise development

Ben Morrison, David Johnston, Matthew Naylor, Natalie M.V. Morrison, Daniel Forrest

Research output: Other contribution to conferencePresentation onlypeer-review


Aim: The use of cues (mental associations between environmental features and events) is common in mentally demanding workplaces (e.g., military, medicine, aviation, sport etc.). Greater cue utilisation in such environments has proven critical in the generation of accurate and efficient responses, and is typically sighted in expert decision making. Experts show greater discrimination in cue use, typically relying on fewer, more predictive (i.e., diagnostic) cues than non-experts. Although cue acquisition is presumed to result largely from operational experience, recent findings suggest that it may be partly derived from inherent characteristics of operators, such as their associative learning capacity. The aim of the current research was to explore whether general associative learning capacity was related to performance in an everyday decision making task. Lie detection was selected as an ideal context for investigation as: 1) it represents a complex task in which objective performance is readily measured; 2) performance is presumed to rely heavily on cue utilisation (e.g., facial features, tone of voice etc.); and 3) it may be considered an ‘everyday’ task, with participants presumed to possess an equivalent degree of experience, and no formal training. It was hypothesised that a greater general capacity for associative learning (and presumably greater capacity for cue acquisition and use) would be correlated with greater accuracy in detecting lies. Design: A single group correlation design using two performance-based tasks was used. Method: 20 participants from a sample of convenience were asked to complete an associative learning task in the form of a Space Invaders-like video game. In the game participants had to respond quickly to a target stimulus (an “enemy spaceship”) that appeared intermittently among distractor stimuli (“friendly spaceships”). Although participants were given no indication that they could learn to predict the appearance of the enemy ship, specific distractor stimuli acted as a ‘conditioned’ stimulus that potentially cued them to its impending appearance. Thus, those who successfully learned the cue would be faster to respond to the appearance of the target ship. This was followed by a lie detection task using a high-stakes mock crime paradigm. The task involved participants viewing twelve pre-recorded one-on-one interviews and reporting whether the character in each video was lying or telling the truth. Results: A statistically significant positive correlation was found between participants’ performance on the associative learning task and the lie detection task. Conclusion: As hypothesised, the results suggest that participants’ inherent capacity for associative learning is related to their effective cue utilisation in everyday tasks. Future research will explore the role of such capacity in the development of domain-specific expertise, which may impact approaches to instructional and system design.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jul 2019
EventAPS 13th Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference - Hilton Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia
Duration: 11 Jul 201913 Jul 2019
Conference number: 13


ConferenceAPS 13th Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference
Abbreviated titleBuilt to Last: People, Performance, Systems and Culture
Internet address


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