Exploring and Exploiting Uncertainty: Statistical Learning Ability Affects How We Learn to Process Language Along Multiple Dimensions of Experience

Cognitive Science 44 (5):e12835 (2020)
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Abstract

While the effects of pattern learning on language processing are well known, the way in which pattern learning shapes exploratory behavior has long gone unnoticed. We report on the way in which individual differences in statistical pattern learning affect performance in the domain of language along multiple dimensions. Analyzing data from healthy monolingual adults' performance on a serial reaction time task and a self‐paced reading task, we show how individual differences in statistical pattern learning are reflected in readers' knowledge of linguistic co‐occurrence patterns and in their exploration and exploitation of content‐specific and task‐general information. First, we investigated the extent to which an individual's pattern learning correlates with his or her sensitivity to systematic morphological and syntactic co‐occurrences, as evidenced while reading authentic sentences. We found that the stream of morphological and syntactic information has a more pronounced effect on the reading speed of, as we will label them, content‐sensitive learners in that the more probable the co‐occurrence pattern, the faster their reading of that pattern will be. Next, we investigated how differences in pattern learning are reflected in the ways in which individuals approach the reading task itself and adapt to it. Casting this relation in terms of exploration/exploitation strategies, known from Reinforcement Learning, we conclude that content‐sensitive learners are also more likely to initially probe (explore) a wider range of directly relevant patterns, which they can later use (exploit) to optimize their reading performance further. By affecting exploratory behavior, pattern learning influences the information that is gathered and becomes available for exploitation, thereby increasing the effect pattern learning has on language cognition.

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