Seeing conflict and engaging control: Experience with contrastive language benefits executive function in preschoolers

Sabine Doebel, Philip David Zelazo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Engaging executive function (EF) often requires overriding a prepotent response in favor of a conflicting but adaptive one. Language may play a key role in this ability by supporting integrated representations of conflicting rules. We tested whether experience with contrastive language that could support such representations benefits EF in 3-year-old children. Children who received brief experience with language highlighting contrast between objects, attributes, and actions showed greater EF on two of three ‘conflict’ EF tasks than children who received experience with contrasting stimuli only and children who read storybooks with the experimenter, controlling for baseline EF. Experience with contrasting stimuli did not benefit EF relative to reading books with the experimenter, indicating experience with contrastive language, rather than experience with contrast generally, was key. Experience with contrastive language also boosted spontaneous attention to contrast, consistent with improvements in representing contrast. These findings indicate a role for language in EF that is consistent with the Cognitive Complexity and Control theory's key claim that coordinating conflicting rules is critical to overcoming perseveration, and suggest new ideas for testing theories of EF.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)219-226
Number of pages8
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported in part by a predoctoral training grant from the National Institutes of Health (NICHD, T32 HD007151 ) and a doctoral dissertation fellowship from the University of Minnesota to the first author. The authors would like to thank Stephanie Carlson, Melissa Koenig, and Sashank Varma for comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript; and Amanda Burkholder, Tegan Carr, Julia Devine, Dana Grahn, and Zach Machacek for their assistance with participant recruitment and data collection.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier B.V.


  • Cognitive Complexity and Control theory
  • Cognitive control
  • Executive function
  • Language and thought
  • Verbal mediation


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