Reconciling the Context-Dependency and Domain-Generality of Executive Function Skills from a Developmental Systems Perspective

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Executive function (EF) skills are a set of attention-regulation skills involved in intentional, goal-directed behavior that include (but are not limited to) the cool EF skills of working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control, and also the hot EF skill of intentional reevaluation. These skills are inevitably expressed in goal- and context-dependent ways, leading some to view EF skills as specific adaptations to particular problems and reinforcing interest in the use of more ecologically contextualized assessments. Appreciation of the context-dependency of EF skills adds to our understanding of how EF skills develop as a consequence of particular experiences and how they contribute to key developmental outcomes. There are good reasons, however, to view EF skills as relatively domain-general neurocognitive skills. Measured using standardized direct behavioral assessments, these skills are associated reliably with well-defined but distinct neural networks; they predict long-term developmental outcomes; and they can be trained in ways that produce far transfer. We argue that developmental systems models of EF skills can reconcile views of EF skills as relatively domain-general and views that emphasize the context-dependency of these skills. Ecologically adapted measures of EF skills can complement standardized measures that capture important age-related and individual differences and should remain a cornerstone of research on the topic. We believe this type of model will facilitate a deeper understanding of how multiple, simultaneous, and interacting causal influences, operating at many levels of analysis (cultural, social, cognitive, neural, and molecular), work together to produce conscious control.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)205-222
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Cognition and Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2023

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