Associative Activation and Its Relation to Exploration and Exploitation in the Brain

Shira Baror, Moshe Bar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Associative activation is commonly assumed to rely on associative strength, such that if A is strongly associated with B, B is activated whenever A is activated. We challenged this assumption by examining whether the activation of associations is state dependent. In three experiments, subjects performed a free-association task while the level of a simultaneous load was manipulated in various ways. In all three experiments subjects in the low-load conditions provided significantly more diverse and original associations compared with subjects in the high-load conditions, who exhibited high consensus. In an additional experiment, we found increased semantic priming of immediate associations under high load and of remote associations under low load. Taken together, these findings imply that activation of associations is an exploratory process by default, but is narrowed to exploiting the more immediate associations under conditions of high load. We propose a potential mechanism for processing associations in exploration and in exploitation modes, and suggest clinical implications.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)776-789
Number of pages14
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016, © The Author(s) 2016.


  • associations
  • cognitive load
  • exploitation
  • exploration
  • free association
  • rumination
  • semantic priming
  • spreading activation


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