Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Task Interference from Prospective Memories Covaries with Contextual Associations of Fulfilling Them

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Task Interference from Prospective Memories Covaries with Contextual Associations of Fulfilling Them

Article excerpt

One of the current issues in the field of prospective memory concerns whether having an intention produces a cost to other ongoing activities (called task interference). The evidence to date suggests that certain intentions held over the shorter term do interfere with other tasks. Because the cumulative effect of such costs would be prohibitively expensive in everyday life, the present study examined one means by which that interference may be reduced. Participants who formed a specific association to fulfilling an intention in a future context did not exhibit task interference over the intervening period until that context was encountered. This outcome was observed with both an event-based and a time-based prospective memory task. The results suggest that associating intention fulfillment with a specific context can eliminate task interference, and they emphasize the importance of studying intentions that are linked to future contexts versus those that are not.

One of the many important functions of memory is to store intentions about future plans, goals, and activities. Intending to refill a prescription, planning a trip to the grocery store, setting aside a future time to write, read, or work on a hobby, or forming the intention to give someone a piece of information are everyday examples of what has been termed prospective memory in the scientific literature. The label connotes a forward-looking component to the memory, and it was intended to contrast directly with retrospective memory, for activities and events that occurred in the past. Although people form a vast array of prospective memories that vary along many dimensions (see Kvavilashvili & ElHs, 1996), perhaps the most often cited distinction contrasts event-based with time-based prospective memory (see, e.g., Einstein & McDaniel, 1990; Park, Hertzog, Kidder, Morrell, & Mayhorn, 1997). In event-based prospective memory, people allow an environmental cue to remind them to complete an intention. For example, the sight of a convenience store might bring to mind the intention to replenish milk, or the sight of a friend might trigger t he intention to relate a novel story. In time-based prospective memory, people plan to execute an activity either at a predetermined time, such as attending a meeting at work, or after a specific period of time has elapsed, such as taking food out of the oven before it is overcooked. Despite the fact that neither type of intention is more or less important than the other, event-based prospective memory has received much more scientific scrutiny than time-based memory (see Cook, Marsh, & Hicks, 2005). Consequently, the theories concerning event-based memory are more developed, as are the various laboratory techniques used to study it.

The present study explores a timely issue in the field of prospective memory-namely, the degree to which possessing a prospective memory interferes with an ongoing activity. In standard laboratory instantiations of eventbased tasks, people are engaged in a cognitive activity such as rating words on various dimensions, naming pictures of famous faces, performing a lexical decision task, reading a passage, and so forth (see, e.g., ElHs, Kvavilashvili, & Milne, 1999; Marsh, Hicks, & Watson, 2002; Maylor, 1996,1998; McDaniel, Robinson-Riegler, & Einstein, 1998). Prior to commencing the task, they are asked to respond to a cue, such as a specific word or a class of items (e.g., words denoting animals), with a special action that indicates they remembered their intention. This laboratory paradigm is intended to simulate real-world situations in which people are engaged in an activity such as driving and the cue appears in the environment (Einstein, Holland, McDaniel, & Guynn, 1992). Recently, Smith (2003) has argued that event-based prospective memory requires preparatory attention that can usurp resources from the ongoing activity. For example, among her demonstrations is the simple case of measuring reaction time in a lexical decision task for a condition that has an active eventbased intention versus a condition that does not. …

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