Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Change-of-Standard Effect: Distorted Standards and Adjusted Impressions

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Change-of-Standard Effect: Distorted Standards and Adjusted Impressions

Article excerpt

Previous accounts of the memory distortion known as the change-of-standard effect hypothesize that participants form a relative impression of a target at encoding and later use that impression with the average of all items to recall the target (Higgins & Lurie, 1983). In three experiments, we investigated the standard and the integration of the standard with the relative impression. Experiments 1 and 2 show that participants' subjective average at recall is distorted toward recent stimuli: It is computed when required and is therefore affected by the items' accessibility at that time. Furthermore, the impression's influence on recall is relatively small when the context changes between encoding and decoding. Experiment 3 shows that this change in the impression's influence occurs only when the participant integrates information across sessions, suggesting that such tasks make participants aware of the changed context and cause them to adjust the use of their impression in recalling the target.

Imagine the following scenario: You read about sentences given by Judge Jones. Jones's sentences are consistently longer than those given by other judges and, thus, strike you as harsh. Later, you read about more judges and try to recall Jones's sentences. Remembering that Jones was harsh, you think about the average of all the judges' sentences and recall longer than average sentences for Jones. If the new judges gave sentences similar to those given by the earlier judges, the recalled sentence length should be close to Jones's actual sentences. But if the new judges gave longer sentences than the first group's, you would overestimate Jones's sentence length. Similarly, if the new judges gave shorter sentences than the first group's, you would underestimate Jones's sentence length. The distortion of recall in this example is an illustration of the change-of-standard (COS) effect (Higgins & Lurie, 1983).

The COS effect is an example of a general class of phenomena involving the processing of both item-specific and more general information. Related phenomena occur in a number of areas of cognitive psychology (see, e.g., Brown & Siegler, 1993; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974), as well as in social cognition (see, e.g., Higgins & Lurie, 1983; Parducci, 1965), discrimination learning (see, e.g., Thomas, 1993), and perception and psychophysics (see, e.g., Choplin & Hummel, 2002; Helson, 1964). Theoretical explanations and experimental paradigms differ somewhat across these areas, but there is general agreement on two points: (1) Individual stimuli are often encoded relative to more general information, such as an abstraction across related stimuli; and (2) such general information about related stimuli is used to decode the relative encoding of the individual stimuli into a nonrelative measure for tasks such as estimation or recall. Thus, this relative encoding-decoding cycle appears to be a fundamental aspect of performance across an extraordinarily wide range of tasks.

The COS paradigm is a particularly interesting testbed for research on this general issue, because the whole cycle is included within the paradigm, unlike some of the related areas of research, which deal with either the encoding phase or the decoding phase of the cycle only. As a result, an understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie the COS effect would provide insight into this relative encoding-decoding cycle across many areas of cognition, social cognition, and perception. However, although the COS effect itself is well established (i.e., recall is distorted due to a changing standard and to a relative encoding of the to-be-recalled target), the underlying cognitive mechanisms are not yet clear. The goal of the present study was to investigate some of the underlying cognitive mechanisms that give rise to the COS effect. In particular, we investigated the processes underlying the access (or creation) of the standard at decoding and the reasoning processes underlying the combination of the relative encoding and the standard in recalling the target; the initial relative encoding is not a focus of the present article-for an extensive discussion of relative encoding effects, see Mussweiler (2003). …

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