Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Environmental Context Effects of Background Color in Free Recall

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Environmental Context Effects of Background Color in Free Recall

Article excerpt

In four experiments, we investigated background-color context effects in free recall. A total of 194 undergraduates studied words presented one by one against a background color, and oral free recall was tested after a 30-sec filled retention interval. A signal for recall was presented against a background color throughout the test. Recalled items were classified as same- and different-context items according to whether the background colors at study and test were the same or different. Significant context effects were found in Experiments 1 and 2, in which two background colors were randomly alternated word by word. No context effects were found in Experiments 3 and 4, in which a common background color was presented for all items (Experiment 3) or for a number of successive items (Experiment 4). The results indicate that a change in background colors is necessary and sufficient to produce context effects. Implications of the present findings are discussed.

Environmental context (EC) refers to incidental information about the environment in which the focal information is processed. The EC is encoded with the focal information into an episodic memory trace and is used as a retrieval cue at the time of remembering. Clarifying the functions of the EC is essential for understanding episodic memory processes. The majority of EC studies have used a variety of places (physical locations, see, e.g., Godden & Baddeley, 1975; Smith, Glenberg, & Bjork, 1978). However, EC studies have also used other environmental features, such as background color (e.g., Isarida, Isarida, & Okamoto, 2005; Rutherford, 2004; Weiss & Margolius, 1954), a combination of visual features of a computer screen called simple visual context (e.g., Dougal & Rotello, 1999; Murnane & Phelps, 1993, 1994, 1995), background music (e.g., Balch, Bowman, & Mohler, 1992; Smith, 1985), voice (e.g., Geiselman & Bjork, 1980; Geiselman & Glenny, 1977), posture (Rand & Wapner, 1967), and odor (e.g., Cann & Ross, 1989; Pointer & Bond, 1998).

There are still unanswered questions about the nature of EC. Smith and Vela (2001) demonstrated the reliability of EC-dependent memory in a meta-analysis. However, for theoretical reasons, they excluded such contexts as background color, simple visual context, voice, posture, and odor from their meta-analysis. Presently, there is no empirical evidence demonstrating that the contexts that they included are functionally different from those that were not included. Empirical research is needed to clarify the functioning of various types of EC and, if necessary, to classify its types.

The present study focuses on the context effects of background color. Background color can be the environmental information that is most contiguous with the focal information, such as to-be-remembered (TBR) items. Background color always exists in a learner's visual field, whether he or she is aware of it or not. Especially when a learner concentrates on studying TBR items, only an item and its background color can be seen. If every type of EC were associated with focal information by contiguity, then background color should produce the strongest context effect.

However, previous findings are inconsistent with this prediction. The background-color context effect may be weaker than the effect of other ECs, or the contextual function of background color may be different from other ECs. A phenomenon that may be specific to backgroundcolor context is that no context effects are found when all TBR items are presented against one common background color. Paired-associate studies have found significant context effects with different background colors for respective pairs (Dulsky, 1935; Weiss & Margolius, 1954), but no effects with a common background color for all pairs (Dulsky, 1935; Petrich & Chiesi, 1976). Pointer and Bond (1998) found no context effect for sentence recall when the TBR sentences were printed on one differently colored sheet of paper, whereas odor perfuming the sheet produced a significant context effect (Pointer & Bond, 1998). …

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