Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

A Contextual Interference Account of Distinctiveness Effects in Recognition

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

A Contextual Interference Account of Distinctiveness Effects in Recognition

Article excerpt

In this article, we report on two experiments that aimed to shed light on the memorability effect that derives from varying the uniqueness of contextual cues presented at encoding and retrieval. We sought to understand the locus of the recognition advantage for studying and testing words with nominally irrelevant features that are rarely shared with other words ("low-fan" features) as compared with features that are studied with more words ("high-fan" features). Each word was studied with one high-fan feature and one low-fan feature, but only one of the two features was reinstated at test. Recognition judgments were more accurate when the low-fan feature was reinstated than when the high-fan feature was reinstated. The data suggest that encoding cues that suffer from contextual interference negatively affect retrieval and do so by hindering recollection-based processing.

Several recent studies have found that memory for words is affected not only by whether the font studied during encoding is reinstated at test (Graf & Ryan, 1990), but also by the number of other words that share the font (Diana, Peterson, & Reder, 2004; Reder, Donavos, & Erickson, 2002). This effect has been called the font fan effect, because the postulated memory representations vary in the number of contextual associations that "fan" out from the node that represents a particular font (see Figure 1). The mechanistic account of this result proposed by Reder et al. (2002) assumes that the amount of activation that spreads from the font source to the node representing the encoding event varies as a function of the fan or number of competitors that share the activation. Further details about the font fan effect on memory will be discussed later. The important issue to understand at this juncture is that these memory effects have been assumed to result from retrieval processes.

Alternatively, it is possible that the font fan effect reflects an effect of distinctiveness, whereby participants pay more attention to distinctive fonts (i.e., those that were shown fewer times during encoding). It has been well established in the memory literature that distinctive stimuli are better remembered than nondistinctive stimuli, and, conceivably, the effect of "contextual fan" of the features that we manipulate might well be only an expression of this distinctiveness. For example, it has been shown that both semantically distinctive words (e.g., Hunt & Mitchell, 1982; Rajaram, 1998; Schmidt, 1985) and perceptually distinctive items (e.g., Hunt & Elliott, 1980; Hunt & Mitchell, 1982; Rajaram, 1998; Zechmeister, 1972) improve recognition memory.

Prior theorists have suggested two basic types of distinctiveness effects: those due to primary distinctiveness and those due to secondary distinctiveness (Schmidt, 1991). Primary distinctiveness effects occur when the properties of an item deviate from the properties of other items in a given study list. Such distinctiveness effects have been demonstrated by isolating physical features, such as font size or color of an item, from other items in a list (e.g., Fabiani & Donchin, 1995; Kishiyama & Yonelinas, 2003) or by isolating an item from other items in a list via membership in a semantic category (Fabiani & Donchin, 1995; Geraci & Rajaram, 2004; Hunt & Lamb, 2001; Schmidt, 1985; von Restorff, 1933). In these cases, the isolating feature was contrasted with other homogeneous features in the experimental context. secondary distinctiveness, on the other hand, occurs when the properties of an item deviate from the properties of items in one's semantic memory, or long-term store. Thus, this type of distinctiveness effect occurs when deviance can be defined in terms of dissimilarity of an inherent characteristic of an item relative to the characteristics of a class of items or a particular study list. An example of this type of distinctiveness effect is the memory advantage of orthographically uncommon/exceptional words over regular words (Hirshman & Jackson, 1997; Hunt & Elliott, 1980; Rajaram, 1998). …

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