Date of Award

Summer 8-13-2010

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Psychology

First Advisor

Sharon L. Thompson-Schill

Abstract

The study of individual differences in cognitive abilities and personality traits has the potential to inform our understanding of how the processing mechanisms underlying different behaviors are organized. In the current set of studies, we applied an individual-differences approach to the study of sources of variation in individuals’ personality traits, cognitive control, and linguistic ambiguity resolution abilities. In Chapter 2, we investigated the relationship between motivational personality traits and cognitive control abilities. The results demonstrated that individual differences in the personality traits of approach and avoidance predict performance on verbal and nonverbal versions of the Stroop task. These results are suggestive of a hemisphere-specific organization of approach/avoidance personality traits and verbal/nonverbal cognitive control abilities. Furthermore, these results are consistent with previous findings of hemispheric asymmetry in terms of the distribution of dopaminergic and norephinephrine signaling pathways. In Chapter 3, we investigated the extent to which the same processing mechanisms are used to resolve lexical and syntactic conflict. In addition, we incorporated a behavioral genetics approach to investigate this commonality at the neurotransmitter level. We explored whether genetic variation in catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), a gene that regulates the catabolism of dopamine in prefrontal cortex, is related to individuals’ ability to resolve lexical and syntactic conflict. The results of this study demonstrated that individual differences in the ability to resolve lexical conflict are related to variation in syntactic conflict resolution abilities. This finding supports constraint satisfaction theories of language processing. We also showed that those individuals with the variant of the COMT gene resulting in less availability of dopamine at the synapse tended to have greater difficulty processing both lexical and syntactic ambiguities. These results provide novel evidence that dopamine plays a role in linguistic ambiguity resolution. In sum, the results from the current set of studies reveal how an individual-differences approach can be used to investigate several different factors involved in the context-dependent regulation of behavior.