Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Release from Generation Failure: The Role of Study List Structure

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Release from Generation Failure: The Role of Study List Structure

Article excerpt

Three experiments, using the original encoding-specificity paradigm, investigated the role of study list structure in producing Higham and Tam's (2005) generation failure effect. Generation failure occurs when cued recall performance for strong, extralist cues is worse than target production in a control group that is given no study list but is instead required merely to generate responses to the same test cues. In the present study, generation failure was replicated in Experiment 1, and Experiment 2 demonstrated that strong, extralist cues were more likely to elicit targets in pure generation groups when participants had studied a list of strong associates than when they had studied a list of weak ones. In Experiment 3, participants were released from generation failure when a study list of moderate associates was used and the cue-to-target associative strength was equated between the reinstated- and extralist-cue conditions. Together, these results suggest that generation failure is partly attributable to participants' searching inappropriate domains that, though consistent with the study list structure, are unlikely to contain targets.

A number of authors over the years have noted that scientists, inventors, and problem solvers alike have difficulty thinking outside the domain in which they are working. For example, Kuhn (1970) argued that scientists work within "paradigms," venturing into new territory only rarely, when a scientific revolution makes it a necessity. Similarly, problem solvers work within the confines of their "mental sets" (see, e.g., Wertheimer, 1959). Indeed, many so-called insight problems have at their roots implicit, unwarranted assumptions which, if adhered to, make it impossible to reach a solution. In the same vein, new technology often shows clear roots in previous technology. For example, very early automobiles looked like cars of the steam train. Similarly, early, automated floor cleaners resembled modem-day hair dryers more than the vacuum cleaners we know today. Presumably, the intention of the inventors was to automate the action of the broom by driving dust away, rather than drawing it up into the machine itself.

All of these examples have one thing in common: They represent restrictions imposed by memory. Memory clearly benefits us hi many ways, but there are also times when it imposes unnecessary restrictions and impairs our performance. In our view, these restrictions exist not just for scientists, problem solvers, and inventors, but can also plague participants in standard memory experiments. One could argue that problem solving and remembering are so different that useful analogies between them cannot be made. However, differences between problem solving and memory tasks are probably more apparent than real. Indeed, Koriat (2000) argued that memory tasks should be treated as problem-solving tasks. Likewise, Schooler, Dougal, and Johnson (1998) suggested that the feeling of recollection bears a close resemblance to the feeling of insight.

Recent experiments in our lab (see, e.g., Higham & Tarn, 2005) have focused on a form of memory restriction in cued recall that we have dubbed generation failure. We believe an important factor in producing generation failure is that the retrieval context, in conjunction with prior learning, implicitly defines a search set that is inappropriate for the task at hand, in much the same way that insight problems implicitly define an inappropriate domain of possible solutions. In the experiments that we report here, we investigated generation failure in the cued recall paradigm that supported the principle of encoding specificity (see, e.g., Thomson & Tulving, 1970; Tulving & Thomson, 1973). In the classic version of this paradigm, participants first study a list of weakly associated word pairs (e.g., bats-VLOOD). At test, target recall performance is compared among three cuing conditions: (l)the reinstated, weak-cue condition (e. …

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