Relational thinking involves comparing abstract relationships between mental representations that vary in complexity; however, this complexity is rarely made explicit during everyday comparisons. This study explored how people naturally navigate relational complexity and interference using a novel relational match-to-sample (RMTS) task with both minimal and relationally directed instruction to observe changes in performance across three levels of relational complexity: perceptual, analogy, and system mappings. Individual working memory and relational abilities were examined to understand RMTS performance and susceptibility to interfering relational structures. Trials were presented without practice across four blocks, and participants received feedback after each attempt to guide learning. Experiment 1 instructed participants to select the target that best matched the sample, whereas Experiment 2 additionally directed participants' attention to same and different relations. Participants in Experiment 2 demonstrated improved performance when solving analogical mappings, suggesting that directing attention to relational characteristics affected behavior. Higher performing participants—those with above-chance performance on the final block of system mappings—solved more analogical RMTS problems and had greater visuospatial working memory, abstraction, verbal analogy, and scene analogy scores compared to lower performers. Lower performers were less dynamic in their performance across blocks and demonstrated negative relationships between analogy and system mapping accuracy, suggesting increased interference between these relational structures. Participant performance on RMTS problems did not change monotonically with relational complexity, suggesting that increases in relational complexity places nonlinear demands on working memory. We argue that competing relational information causes additional interference, especially in individuals with lower executive function abilities.

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