Implicit learning of temporal behavior in complex dynamic environments

Josh M. Salet*, Wouter Kruijne, Hedderik van Rijn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
55 Downloads (Pure)


Humans can automatically detect and learn to exploit repeated aspects (regularities) of the environment. Timing research suggests that such learning is not only used to anticipate what will happen, but also when it will happen. However, in timing experiments, the intervals to be timed are presented in isolation from other stimuli and explicitly cued, contrasting with naturalistic environments in which intervals are embedded in a constant stream of events and individuals are hardly aware of them. It is unclear whether laboratory findings from timing research translate to a more ecologically valid, implicit environment. Here we show in a game-like experiment, specifically designed to measure naturalistic behavior, that participants implicitly use regular intervals to anticipate future events, even when these intervals are constantly interrupted by irregular yet behaviorally relevant events. This finding extends previous research by showing that individuals not only detect such regularities but can also use this knowledge to decide when to act in a complex environment. Furthermore, this finding demonstrates that this type of learning can occur independently from the ordinal sequence of motor actions, which contrasts this work with earlier motor learning studies. Taken together, our results demonstrate that regularities in the time between events are implicitly monitored and used to predict and act on what happens when, thereby showing that laboratory findings from timing research can generalize to naturalistic environments. Additionally, with the development of our game-like experiment, we demonstrate an approach to test cognitive theories in less controlled, ecologically more valid environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1270-1280
Number of pages11
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin & Review
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug-2021


  • Cues
  • Humans
  • Knowledge
  • Learning

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