Could training executive functions have unintended negative consequences?

A recent study that trained working memory found decreased performance in an untrained task

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The importance of executive functions in subjects across the curriculum has led many researchers to consider how training executive functions might improve performance in these subjects. We already know that it is possible to train executive functions, such as working memory or inhibitory control, but the key question is whether this improvement transfers to academic subjects that require these skills. So far, there is little research indicating successful transfer, but the field is moving towards an approach of training the executive function within the academic subject of interest: in contrast to simply training the executive function. This is more likely to be fruitful because it requires more explicit use of the skill in a new setting. Part of the training in this case might be simply raising awareness that a particular skill is useful within that subject.

A less discussed issue in training research is the possible unintended consequences of training. A recent paper by Matzen and colleagues found that performance on a recognition memory task decreased following working memory training in adults. Here, the training was not within a subject domain, but was a typical adaptive working memory programme, aiming to improve both verbal and spatial working memory. The authors hypothesised that there would be near-transfer to other working memory tasks, and far-transfer to a recognition memory task. In fact, while performance on the baseline working memory tasks increased, the training led to no near-transfer and lower performance on the far-transfer recognition memory task.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this paper is that participants were asked about their memory strategies. Analysis of this data suggests that participants who had received the working memory training were using less effective strategies: they were using the strategies learned during training but these were not effective in the recognition memory task. Ironically then, participants did show far-transfer to a new task, but it did not have the anticipated positive effect. The authors suggest that future studies include a larger battery of tasks to examine whether decreased performance is simply a quirk of specific measures or a genuinely concerning effect.

I think this finding further highlights the need for training to be explicit and occur within the subject domain. Explaining clearly to participants why a skill is being trained, and why it is useful within the context might help to guard against implicit unwanted transfer to other tasks. In my own research, I am considering an inhibitory control training programme within the context of science and maths. Explaining the mechanism through which inhibitory control impacts science and maths reasoning, alongside the subject-embedded inhibitory control training programme, might increase awareness of participants’ strategy use and allow selection of the appropriate strategy for the task at hand. Considering the limited transfer effects in the literature, this may be more beneficial than training inhibitory control in isolation and looking for transfer to science and maths.

Nonetheless, I will bear in mind the possibility that any training could have unintended negative consequences, and consider what these might be and how they could be measured and combatted. If we continue to find decreased performance in untrained areas, this will raise important questions about why and when we should implement training programmes, weighing up the benefits in one domain against the detriment to others.

The full reference for the Matzen paper:

Matzen, L. E., Trumbo, M. C., Haass, M. J., Hunter, M. A., Silva, A., Stevens-Adams, S. M., Buning, M. F., & O’Rourke, P. (2016). Practice makes imperfect: Working memory training can harm recognition memory performance. Memory & Cognition, 44, 1168. doi:10.3758/s13421-016-0629-4

This blog post first appeared on my personal website.

Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne

Science writer and editor, The Psychologist and BOLD

Before becoming a science writer and editor I used behavioural, neuroimaging, and classroom methods to examine the cognitive and neural bases of science and maths reasoning.


Go to the profile of Phil Cowley
about 5 years ago
As an Educational Psychologist, I am sometimes asked about those working memory training programmes which are heavily promoted in the educational press. My reply is invariably 'Don't waste your money', and I base this on the meta-analytic review by Melby-Verlag and Hulme in Developmental Psychology 49 #2 (2013), which considered these programmes, among others, and found them wanting in terms of far-transfer, and also effect wash-out over time. They speculated that 'it remains possible that training methods developed in the future will show better generalisation, though current evidence is not encouraging in this regard'. From your blog, it seems that nothing has changed, except that directing the research effort into more domain-specific areas may be a more promising approach. I wonder how much coverage Matzen et al will attract in the educational press which carries the promotional material for these programmes....
Go to the profile of Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne
about 5 years ago
Hi Phil, thanks for your comments. Great to hear that you're passing on the lack of evidence for these programmes, but concerning (although unsurprising) that they are being promoted in the educational press. Out of interest, where are these programmes advertised? I wonder if there's a way of getting in touch with these publications and perhaps getting an article in there.
Go to the profile of Phil Cowley
about 5 years ago
Hi Annie. I've been looking at the trends in advertising, and it looks like the companies concerned have lowered their profile in the last 12 months. This may be due to Lumosity having been fined $2m in the USA. You can read about this on the BBC website : (item dated 6.01.16). Until then, companies such as these (including the well known Pearson Group) were advertising regularly in magazines such as SEN Magazine. The Special Education press have been a favourite target.
Go to the profile of Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne
about 5 years ago
Hi Phil. I had heard about Lumosity being fined, so am glad to hear that this seems to have had some impact on what is being advertised. I haven't come across SEN Magazine before so will definitely check it out, thanks.