Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Effects of Working Memory Capacity on Mental Set Due to Domain Knowledge

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Effects of Working Memory Capacity on Mental Set Due to Domain Knowledge

Article excerpt

The present set of studies examines how working memory capacity (WMC) relates to performance on a Remote Associates Task (RAT), originally designed by Mednick (1962) as a quantifiable creative problem solving assessment. The source of fixation was manipulated across two sets of RAT items. One set was neutral with no specific fixation embedded in them, while the second set was baseball-misleading, designed so that prior knowledge of baseball would lead to an incorrect solution attempt (Wiley, 1998). WMC scores were positively related to performance on RAT items in all conditions, except one. High baseball knowledge participants' WMC scores did not relate to performance on the baseball-misleading RAT. While in general WMC may lead to better RAT performance, these results suggest that when there is a candidate solution strongly activated by prior knowledge, WMC may actually lead to too much focus on the incorrect solution and exacerbate mental sets.

Many problems we face in our everyday lives require creative problem solving. As opposed to problems that may be well-structured with obvious routes to solution, many everyday problems are ill-structured and misleading. For these problems, we need to move beyond the most obvious or salient approaches to a solution and consider a broad range of more remote possibilities or alternate representations until one fulfills our needs. The present study is concerned with how individual differences in working memory capacity (WMC) may affect performance in a particular problem solving context, the Remote Associates Task (RAT), in which many solution attempts must be generated while previous attempts need to be ignored. Since WMC has been identified as an important factor in both an individual's ability to retrieve items from long-term memory (Rosen & Engle, 1997), as well as in the ability to resist interference during processing (Kane & Engle, 2003; Stoltzfus, Hasher & Zacks, 1996), the current study investigates the role WMC might play in RAT problem solving.

Working Memory Capacity

Working memory has been conceptualized as a limited capacity mental workspace in which activated memory representations are available for manipulation in a temporary buffer (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Daneman & Carpenter, 1980). Current assessments of WMC use complex span tasks in which the processing and storage components are interleaved but distinct (Conway, Kane, Bunting, Hambrick, Wilhelm, & Engle, 2005). In complex reading span tasks, participants are asked to read sentences as a processing component and remember a list of letters as a storage component. Another measure, the operation span, involves solving elementary math problems, and remembering a list of unrelated words. When both tasks are administered, reliability of the measures can be determined, and a composite score that removes task-specific variance can be computed which typically predicts performance on a wide range of cognitive tasks, including reasoning and problem solving measures (Conway et al., 2005; Kane et al., 2004; Kyllonen, 1996; Kyllonen & Christal, 1990).

Individual differences in WMC have been theoretically attributed to two main classes of subprocesses: differences in active maintenance or retention, and differences in attentional control or distractor blocking (Kane & Engle, 2003). Earlier work defined WMC as the amount of activation available to the WM system (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980; Engle, Cantor, & Carullo, 1992), or the efficiency of encoding and retrieving information from LTM (Ericsson & Delaney, 1998; Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995, Rosen & Engle, 1997). More recently, researchers have emphasized the relationship between WMC and the ability to process new information and maintain goals in the face of interference (Conway, et al., 2005; Rosen & Engle, 1997; Stoltzfus, Hasher & Zacks, 1996), or the ability to control and focus one's attention (Conway, Cowan, & Bunting, 2001; Kane & Engle, 2005). …

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