What is it about?

When does the absence of evidence become evidence? How do we use ’empty time’ to guide our judgments? In three studies, we investigated the relevance of absent events in human contingency learning. We found a way to enhance perceived contingencies without adding trials in which the target cue and outcome are paired, but by adding trials without any relevant stimuli.

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Why is it important?

In applied situations such as educational and psychotherapeutic settings, one challenge to the spacing of training trials is that spacing training trials ordinarily increases the total time needed for training. The present findings suggest that frequency of stimuli-absent trials rather than stimuli-absent duration is critical for an enhanced perception of an association. If we believe that there is a fundamental similarity between trial spacing and coabsent events, this would suggest that the benefit of trial spacing is not due to time per se between training trials but to the number of coabsent events that agents perceive between training trials. Hence, more intertrial events can be added without any cost in training time by making these events shorter.


These results may be a useful heuristic tool to study psychopathologies that involve a strong cognitive disruption, such as schizophrenia. For instance, the absent information might be disregarded completely by some patients. If we could assess the degree of usage of the absent information, we might understand better why people reach wrong/delusional conjectures.

Santiago Castiello
University of Oxford

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This page is a summary of: Benefiting from trial spacing without the cost of prolonged training: Frequency, not duration, of trials with absent stimuli enhances perceived contingency., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, January 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/xge0001166.
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