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Classic experiments explained

Alternate Task Switching

In short

Alternate task switching is a vital aspect of cognitive control. It occurs when an individual switches their attention between two or more tasks. This allows us to flexibly manage multiple demands in our day-to-day lives and is an important element of our executive function. Whilst initially explored by Jersild in 1927, it gained prominence in cognitive psychology after Rogers and Monsell’s work in 1995.

Alternate Task Switching procedures

Jersild (1927) compared participants completing one task to those who were asked to complete two tasks in fast alteration. It was concluded that switching between two different tasks resulted in slower perfomance, demonstrating the cognitive demand of the task.

Rogers and Monsell (1995) investigated the 'switch cost' in terms of performance accuracy and speed. Participants complete different tasks, Task A and Task B for example, in alternating order (AABBAABBAA). This design ensured there was an element of repetition (AA and BB) and also alternating tasks (AB and BA). This demonstrated that the cost of switching between tasks is affected by the length of the response-stimulus interval.

In Gorilla, the task involves a shape presented at either the top or the bottom of the screen. Participants are instructed to follow different rules, depending on the position of the shape. If the shape appears at the top of the screen, participants should press the F key if the shape is blue and the J key if the shape is green. If the the shape appears at the bottom of the screen, participants should press the F key if the shape is a square, and the J key if the shape is a rectangle. These trial types will alternate every two trials. As participants shift their attention, their reaction times typically slow down.

A gif of the Alternate Task Switching task from the participants' perspective. The position of the green and blue squares and rectangles changes every two trials. Participants see a green tick for correct responses and a red cross for incorrect responses.

What is Alternate Task Switching?

Essentially, it is the increased cognitive load we experience when switching between different tasks. It is shown by increased errors and an overall reduced speed when the task switches, since our brain attempts to adapt to the new stimuli and task demands. When trying to complete multiple tasks at once, our efficiency and performance is negatively impacted.

By acknowledging 'switch costs', we can enhance productiveness and efficiency in the workforce. For example, in air traffic control where it is essential for people to have an enhanced speed when it comes to decision making.

Alternate Task Switching theory

One Alternate Task Switching theory is task-set reconfiguration. This theory proposes that mental settings are adjusted to align with the different tasks. This involves updating task rules and shifting attention in the executive control centre, resulting in a switch cost and slower performance.

In contrast, another theory suggests task-set inertia, which refers to the persistence of a cognitive task when switching to a new one. This inertia interferes with the new task, resulting in slower reaction times and more errors occurring.

Can I use an Alternate Task Switching task in online research?

Yes, absolutely! In fact, other researchers have already used an Alternate Task Switching task to study reaction times and working memory in middle-aged gamers and non-gamers (Ziv et al., 2022).

How does it work in Gorilla?

You can try out and clone our sample of an Alternate Task Switching task. Of course, you can also tweak this sample to use your own stimuli.

Have a look: Try an Alternate Task Switching task in Gorilla

Are there any papers Gorilla users have written about Alternate Task Switching?

Yes, there are! Have a look at the following article:

Reaction time and working memory in middle-aged gamers and non-gamers.


Evans, L. H., Herron, J. E., & Wilding, E. L. (2015). Direct real-time neural evidence for task-set inertia. Psychological Science, 26(3), 284-290.

Jersild, A. T. (1927). Mental set and shift. Archives of Psychology, 14, 89, 81.

Ravizza, S. M., & Carter, C. S. (2008). Shifting set about task switching: Behavioral and neural evidence for distinct forms of cognitive flexibility. Neuropsychologia, 46(12), 2924-2935.

Rogers, R. D., & Monsell, S. (1995). Costs of a predictible switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124(2), 207.

Schneider, D. W., & Logan, G. D. (2007). Defining task-set reconfiguration: The case of reference point switching. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 118-125.

Wylie, G., & Allport, A. (2000). Task switching and the measurement of “switch costs”. Psychological Research, 63, 212-233.

Ziv, G., Lidor, R., & Levin, O. (2022). Reaction time and working memory in middle-aged gamers and non-gamers. Acta Psychologica, 228, 103666.

This page was written in collaboration with Lizzie Drury