Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Complex Span Tasks, Simple Span Tasks, and Cognitive Abilities: A Reanalysis of Key Studies

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Complex Span Tasks, Simple Span Tasks, and Cognitive Abilities: A Reanalysis of Key Studies

Article excerpt

There is great interest in the relationships between memory span tasks and cognitive abilities. However, the causes underlying their correlation remain unknown. In the present article, five key data sets were reanalyzed according to two criteria: They must consider complex span tasks (so-called working memory [WM] tasks) and simple span tasks (so-called short-term memory [STM] tasks), and they must comprise cognitive ability measures. The obtained results offer several points of interest. First, memory span tasks should be conceived from a hierarchical perspective: They comprise both general and specific components. Second, the general component explains about four times the variance explained by the specific components. Third, STM and WM measures are closely related. Fourth, STM and WM measures share the same common variance with cognitive abilities. Finally, the strong relationship usually found between memory span tasks and cognitive abilities could be tentatively interpreted by the component shared by STM and WM-namely, the capacity for temporarily preserving a reliable memory representation of any given information.

There is increasing interest in the observed relationship between memory span tasks and cognitive abilities (Ackerman, Beier, & Boyle, 2002, 2005; Bayliss, Jarrold, Gunn, & Baddeley, 2003; Colom, Abad, Rebollo, & Shih, 2005; Colom, Flores-Mendoza, & Rebollo, 2003; Colom, Rebollo, Palacios, Juan-Espinosa, & Kyllonen, 2004; Colom & Shih, 2004; Conway, Cowan, Bunting, Therriault, & Minkoff, 2002; Engle, Tuholski, Laughlin, & Conway, 1999; Kane et al., 2004; Kyllonen & Christal, 1990; Lohman, 2000; Miyaké, Friedman, Rettinger, Shah, & Hegarty, 2001; SuB, Oberauer, Wittmann, Wilhehn, & Schulze, 2002).

Within the investigation of memory span tasks, there are two basic theoretical issues presumably germane to the understanding of individual differences in cognitive abilities (Miyake, 2001). Fust, to what extent are individual differences hi memory span tasks domain specific or domain general? Friedman and Miyake (2000) and Mackintosh and Bennett (2003) highlighted the domain-specific components of complex span tasks, whereas Turner and Engle (1989), Kane et al. (2004), and Colom and Shih (2004) emphasized the domain-general component. Nevertheless, a quantification of the importance of those domain-general and domain-specific components is strongly needed. To our knowledge, this quantification has not yet been attempted.

Engle, Kane, and Tuholski (1999) proposed a hierarchical view based on both domain-general and domain-specific components. A general factor can be equated with the domain-general component of span tasks, whereas specific factors can be equated with domain-specific components. This hierarchical view is explicitly tested in the present article. In addition, the relative importance of those components is specifically quantified. This quantification can help to illuminate the causes of the association usually found between memory span tasks and cognitive abilities.

Moreover, it could shed light on the factors underlying individual differences hi these tasks. Thus, the first goal of the present article is met by this quantification. The second theoretical issue concerns which factors underlie individual differences in memory span tasks. Surely, there are several relevant factors (Miyake, 2001). However, here we focus on the influential theoretical framework proposed by Engle, Kane, and Tuholski (1999)-namely, WM = STM + controlled attention. Thus, the second goal of the present article is to test the likelihood of the controlled attention view of the WM system in its relationship to cognitive abilities.

Interestingly, Engle and Kane (2004) distinguished the microanalytic approach from the macroanalytic approach. The former approach is based on the selection of participants according to their scores on a given WM measure. …

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