The Stroop Task

The Stroop Task is a choice reaction time task where there is dimensional overlap between all three dimensions of the task: the relevant stimulus, the irrelevant stimulus, and the response.  In the dimensional overlap taxonomy, it is considered a Type 8 task.

Stroop (1935; see also Dyer, 1973; Lu & Proctor, 1995; MacLeod, 1991) studied the effects of an irrelevant color word in a color-naming task. In the simplest and most well-known version of the Stroop task, subjects are told to name the color of a stimulus (e.g. say the word “blue” when they see a blue stimulus). Along with the color, however, a color word (e.g. “blue” or “green”) is also presented. The color word can be either presented in the colors, or super-imposed on a colored background (see MacLeod, 1998). The color word is irrelevant, but it can be either consistent with the stimulus color and the response name (e.g. the word “blue” written in blue ink, requiring a response of “blue”) or inconsistent with the stimulus color and the response name (e.g. the word “green” written in blue ink, requiring a response of “blue”).


A simple Stroop task


Performance is slower and less accurate when the irrelevant stimulus word does not match the relevant stimulus and response, and faster and more accurate when it matches the relevant stimulus and response. The difference in reaction time is usually called the Stroop effect.

Stroop tasks permit a great deal of variation while still yielding the same basic consistency effect. This basic Stroop effect has been found using shapes and shape names (e.g. Irwin, 1978; Redding & Gerjets, 1977; Shor, 1971), pictures and picture names (e.g. Babbit, 1982; Dunbar, 1986; Rayner & Springer, 1986; Toma & Tsao, 1985) and spatial locations and their labels (e.g. Baldo, Shimamura, & Prinzmetal, 1998; Lu & Proctor, 1995; Palef, 1978; Seymour, 1973; Virzi & Egeth, 1985). Auditory Stroop tasks have also been studied, with typical stimuli being the words “left” and “right” spoken in the left and right ear (e.g. Green & Barber, 1981; McClain, 1983; Proctor & Pick, 1998; Ragot & Piori, 1994; Simon & Rudell, 1967). Although Stroop tasks have most commonly used conceptual dimensional overlap between dimensions (e.g. the learned associations between colors and their names) they have also used perceptual overlap (e.g. flanker stimuli) (e.g. Glaser & Glaser, 1982, 1989; Zhang & Kornblum, 1998).

In this standard version of the task, however, there is a problem: there is no way to determine whether this overall difference in reaction time is due to the S-S consistency or the irrelevant S-R consistency, or a combination of both.

Because there are three kinds of dimensional overlap in a Type 8 task, there are in principle three different compatibility effects that could appear: a mapping (relevant S-R) effect, an irrelevant S-R consistency effect, and an S-S consistency effect.

Zhang and Kornblum (1998) were able to measure each of these effects independently by constructing a four-choice Stroop task that included both a congruent and incongruent mapping. In this task, subjects responded to one of four words (“red”, “green”, “blue”, “yellow”) by saying one of four words from the same list. Above and below the target word appeared another irrelevant word from the same list. In the incongruent mapping condition, the words that appeared above and below the target could be either S-S inconsistent and S-R consistent (e.g. “blue” flanked by “blue” requiring a response of “green”), S-S inconsistent and S-R consistent (e.g. “blue” flanked by “green” requiring a response of “green”), or both S-S and S-R inconsistent (e.g. “blue” flanked by “red” requiring a response of “green”).


complete Stroop task and effects


When the mapping was incongruent, the reaction times were fastest for S-S consistent and S-R inconsistent flankers, intermediate for S-S inconsistent and S-R consistent flankers, and slowest for S-S and S-R inconsistent flankers. This demonstrates that both S-S consistency and S-R consistency contribute independent and separately measurable effects in the Stroop task, as predicted by the dimensional overlap model.



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The Jaensch Effect

The Stroop Effect was first discovered by Erich Rudolf Jaensch in 1929.

So why is it called the “Stroop effect”?

Jaensch published his insight about the Stroop effect in a book called “Grundformen menschlichen Seins” in Berlin. The title means “Basic forms of human existence,” but as you can guess it was written entirely in German.

When John Ridley Stroop conducted his experiments and published the results in 1935, Jaensch’s book had not yet been translated into English or published in English-speaking countries. Because the majority of science publications at this time were written and read in English, the word spread on Stroop’s result very quickly, and soon his name was inseparable from the experimental task and the results that it proved.

Nobody believes that Stroop “stole” the idea from Jaensch: it’s fairly obvious that both people came up with the result independently.

But there is a lesson to be learned from this story: sometimes, being the first to discover something isn’t enough. You need to get people to know that you made the discovery, if you want to get the credit that you deserve.

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