The Effect of Patterns on Reaction Time in Students Stimulated by Colored Lights

Mark Olofson and Yassamin Nasserian


In this experiment, we tested the effect of pattern introduction on the reaction time of students responding to a series of colored lights.  Human beings are constantly learning.  As we go through our day, we learn countless things, both consciously and subconsciously.  One of the ways in which we learn is through the recognition of repeated patters.  If we are exposed to a pattern many times, we come to expect the next element in the pattern.  If the pattern is broken, these expectations must be overcome.  We hypothesized that if we introduced of a pattern into the series of lights, it would cause reaction time to drop, and that if we broke the pattern we would see reaction time spike over the baseline random reaction time.

Using a simple light response apparatus, we created a test scenario in which the first five stimuli were random, followed by a set of 20 stimuli in which every other light was red, followed by a final random set of five.  Upon the introduction of a light, the subjects had to respond by hitting the corresponding button.  The test subjects placed their heads underneath a black cloth, so as to minimize light and audio distraction.  All five test subjects were subjugated to the same series of stimuli, and their reaction times were recorded.

We found that there was a 16% drop in reaction time during the patterned period of stimuli.  The difference in reaction time was significant, with p = 0.008.  We also found that there was no significant difference between the reaction time before the pattern period and the reaction time after the period (p=0.68).  The presence of a “spike” in reaction time at the first stimulus to break the pattern could not be definitively identified.

As we hypothesized, reaction time dropped as the subjects learned the pattern.  However, due to a limited data set, we could not reach a conclusion about the change in reaction time at the pattern breaking point.  In all cases it increased, but not in an extreme way.  More trials would have to be run in order to state a conclusion.  Also, we did not block out all outside stimuli, and although we standardized the order of the lights, we did not standardize the time interval between the stimuli.  This could lead to more variance.  There did not appear to be any other student studies in this vein, but in a study conducted by Schupp and Schlier and reported in Biological Cybernetics (11, 2, 1972) it was found that reaction time decreased as subjects learned the intervals between stimuli, even when the subject did not know the learning was occurring.

The original hypotheses do not need to be dropped; however, they do need to be tested more thoroughly and under a more standard atmosphere.  Also, there are a number of other variables which could cause variance, including developmental disparities, familiarity of the task, and the fact that we only took test subjects who were willing to participate.  It is possible that video-gamers would have lower reaction times, given that they have more practice with this particular type of hand-eye coordination.  Alternately, a truly random sample over genders and age groups might show that younger people of a particular sex were less affected by the unknown than a different sample group.  The gauging of reaction time can indicate a number of different experiences, and so, given a controlled environment, reaction time tests can reveal much about an individual.