There are stable individual differences in performance variability, both from moment to moment and from day to day

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Individual differences in decision speed have been regarded as direct reflections of a "primitive" functional neurophysiological characteristic, which affects performance on all cognitive tasks and so may be regarded as the "biological basis of intelligence", or of age-related changes in mental abilities. More detailed analyses show that variability within an experimental session (WSV) is a stable individual difference characteristic and that mean choice reaction times (CRTs) are gross summary statistics that reflect variability, rather than maximum speed of performance. A total of 98 people aged from 60 to 80 years completed 36 weekly sessions on six different letter categorization tasks. After effects of practice and of circadian variability had been eliminated, individuals with lower scores on the Cattell Culture Fair intelligence test had slower CRTs and greater WSV on all tasks. A simulation study showed that the greater WSVs of low Cattell scorers led directly to the significantly greater variability of their mean CRTs from session to session. However because CRTs on tasks co-varied from session to session it was apparent that, besides being affected by WSV, individuals' between-session variabilities (BSVs) also vary because of state changes that affect their performance from day to day. It seems that both variability in performance from trial to trial during a session and variability in average performance from day to day are correlated, stable, individual difference characteristics that vary inversely with intelligence test performance. Methodological consequences of these results for interpretations of age-related cognitive changes, for variability between as well as within individuals, for individual differences in decision speed, and for circadian variability in performance are discussed.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: November 1, 2001

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