Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Memory for Intention-Related Material Presented in a To-Be-Ignored Channel

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Memory for Intention-Related Material Presented in a To-Be-Ignored Channel

Article excerpt

Three experiments were conducted to investigate the fate of intention-related material processed in a to-be-ignored channel. Participants were given an intention to respond to cues in a visual-processing stream while simultaneously trying to ignore information being presented in an auditory stream. Subsequent to the ongoing activity, a surprise recognition test for information presented in the to-be-ignored auditory modality was administered. As compared with comparable neutral information, corrected recognition memory for intention-related material was significantly better, depending on the type of event-based prospective memory task. These results suggest that holding certain kinds of intentions can bias attentional processes in a manner consistent with a perceptual readiness for uptake of intention-related material.

Perhaps the most fundamental weakness of the cognitive system is its limited capacity to attend to only a very few elements of the physical or mental world at any given time (Kahneman, 1973; Norman & Bobrow, 1975; Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977). Numerous stimuli impinge on the cognitive system both from within and from without, and only a very few of them ever reach the level of conscious awareness and detailed cognitive processing. Of course, attention is a constant trade-off between focalization, on the one hand, and monitoring one's environment, on the other (Pashler, 1998); but the average cognitive psychologist has been inculcated to adopt William James's (1890/1950) definition as codified in the following well-known excerpt from The Principles of Psychology:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence, (p. 261)

The question that is still debated today, over 100 years later, is how certain elements of our perceptual and mental worlds capture our attention and rise to the special status that we become "aware" of them. For some time, psychologists studying basic perceptual principles believed that certain singletons obligatorily captured attention, but we now know that top-down processing from goals and intentions largely determines what elements attract attention (e.g., Pashler, Johnston, & Ruthruff, 2001). In the context of prospective memory, we have made the point that holding an intention to perform some activity may, therefore, determine what elements in our worlds are singled out for further processing (Hicks, Cook, & Marsh, 2005).1

We are not the first to suggest that having an intention to perform some activity in the future may heighten awareness to intention-related material. In the post-World War II era of the New Look, psychologists studying perception argued that the intention to eat something because one is hungry heightens one's awareness of food-related objects and words (see Schiff, 1980, pp. 407-416). A good example of this was shown in a group of participants who were made to feel thirsty; they responded more quickly to drinking-related items in a lexical decision task than did a control group who had not been made to feel thirsty (Aarts, Dijksterhuis, & De Vries, 2001). Recently, Goschke and Kühl (1993, 1996) have argued that intentions reside in memory with an above-baseline level of activation, thereby biasing attention toward intention-related material. To use their example, if one has the intention to mail a letter, then mailboxes, mail trucks, stamps, envelopes, and post office fronts will capture attention more readily than they otherwise would if one did not have the intention. Goschke and Kuhl dubbed this idea the intention superiority effect. In our own work on the topic, people responded more quickly in a lexical decision task to intention-related words from to-be-performed scripts than to more neutral words that were not associated with an intention, and the same was true of partially completed but unfilled intentions (Marsh, Hicks, & Bink, 1998). …

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