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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Chunking as a Rational Solution to the Speed-Accuracy Trade-off in a Serial Reaction Time Task


When exposed to perceptual sequences, we are able to gradually identify patterns within and form a compact internal description of the sequence. One proposal of how disparate sequential items can become one is people's ability to form chunks. We study chunking under the regime of serial reaction time tasks. We propose a rational model of chunking that progressively rearranges and modifies its representation to arrive at one that is beneficial to participants' utility under task demands. Our model predicts that participants should, on average, learn longer chunks when optimizing for speed than optimizing for accuracy. We tested this prediction experimentally by instructing and rewarding one group of participants to act as fast as possible, while the other group was instructed to act as accurately as possible. From several independent sources of evidence, we confirmed our model's predictions that participants in the fast condition chunked more than participants in the accurate condition. These results shed new light on the benefits of chunking and pave the way for future studies on structural and representation learning domains.

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