Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Distinguishing between Attributional and Mnemonic Sources of Familiarity: The Case of Positive Emotion Bias

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Distinguishing between Attributional and Mnemonic Sources of Familiarity: The Case of Positive Emotion Bias

Article excerpt

Does familiarity arise from direct access to memory representations (a mnemonic account) or from inferences and diagnostic cues (an attributional account)? These theoretically distinct explanations can be difficult to distinguish in practice, as is shown by the positivity effect, the increase in feelings of familiarity that accompanies positive emotion. Experiment 1 manipulated mnemonic and attributional sources of positivity via word valence and physical expressions of emotion, respectively. Both sources influenced the tendency to call items old, but receiver-operating characteristic analysis revealed a change in accuracy only with the mnemonic source. To further contrast the mnemonic and attributional accounts, Experiment 2 varied the ratio of positive to neutral words. A higher proportion of positive words exaggerated the pattern of increased old judgments and decreased accuracy for positive words, relative to neutral ones, consistent with the mnemonic account but inconsistent with the attributional account.

Knowledge that something has been previously encountered often takes the form of a simple sense of familiarity, a feeling of oldness that is immediate but lacking in detail or context. The nature and source of familiarity have been a focus of debate among memory theorists going back to Wundt (Feingold, 1915), and in the current literature, this takes the form of two very different explanatory approaches. Mnemonic explanations suggest that familiarity arises from direct access to memory images of the stimulus probe. This is the traditional approach taken by mechanistic models of recognition in which the characteristics of the probe are compared with those of memory images in order to calculate an index of similarity or goodness of match (e.g., Gillund & Shiffrin, 1984; Hintzman, 1988). However, the growing appreciation for the role of metacognition in memory has given rise to attributional explanations that suggest that familiarity is not a direct product of memory retrieval, because direct access to memory representations either is limited or, at best, provides ambiguous information. Familiarity is a feeling that arises when we infer, on the basis of various clues, that a past encounter must have occurred. An example of a diagnostic clue is fluency: The ability to perceive and process something quickly and easily is evidence that the cognitive system has processed the stimulus in the past. It is the attribution of processing fluency to prior exposure that gives rise to familiarity (Jacoby & Dallas, 1981; Whittlesea, 1993, 1997).

Although the mnemonic and attributional accounts differ fundamentally at a theoretical level, they can be difficult to distinguish in practice. For example, prior exposure may prime the perceptual pathways activated by the stimulus, resulting in more fluent processing, but prior exposure also creates memory traces of this past experience. Does familiarity arise from an inference about the meaning of fluent processing or from direct contact with an image stored in memory? Signal detection analysis offers, in principle, a way to distinguish between the two accounts. In the signal detection model, the tendency when making a recognition judgment to choose one response over another (i.e., to respond old rather than new) indicates a change in response bias, not accuracy. A change in the quality of information retrieved from memory, on the other hand, may affect the ability to distinguish old from new probes, resulting in a change in accuracy. We hypothesize that attributional factors influence response tendency only, whereas mnemonic factors influence the quality of memory. Therefore, it should be possible to determine whether a change in feelings of familiarity is due to attributional or mnemonic factors by looking at corresponding changes in bias and accuracy.

In this study, we consider the case of positive emotion bias, or the positivity effect, the finding that positive affect inflates feelings of familiarity. …

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