Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Evidence for Similar Principles in Episodic and Semantic Memory: The Presidential Serial Position Function

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Evidence for Similar Principles in Episodic and Semantic Memory: The Presidential Serial Position Function

Article excerpt

When people recall a list of items that they have just experienced (an episodic memory task), the resulting serial position function looks strikingly similar to that observed when people are asked to recall the presidents of the United States (a semantic memory task). Despite the similarity in appearance, there is disagreement about whether the two functions arise from the same processes. A local distinctiveness model of memory, SIMPLE, successfully fit the presidential data using two underlying dimensions: one corresponding to item (or presidential) distinctiveness and the other to order (or positional) distinctiveness. According to the model, presidential primacy and recency are due to the same mechanisms that give rise to primacy and recency effects in both short- and long-term episodic memory. All of these primacy and recency effects reflect the relative distinctiveness principle (Surprenant & Neath, 2009): Items will be well remembered to the extent that they are more distinct than competing items at the time of retrieval.

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In most areas of scientific research, there exist laws and principles that are the foundation of research and theory within that discipline. In the domain of human memory, however, there are few principles and no widely accepted laws (Roediger, 2008). One reason offered for the lack of laws and principles is that memory is not a unitary system: Because each memory system has different properties and operates according to different rules, "no profound generalizations can be made about memory as a whole" ( Tulving, 1985, p. 385). In contrast, others have argued that if one views memory from a functional perspective, rather than from a multiple-systems perspective, general principles of memory can be found (Surprenant & Neath, 2009). The simulation reported here provides an existence proof that the relative distinctiveness principle-items will be well remembered to the extent that they are more distinct than competing items at the time of retrieval-applies equally well to data from short- and long-term episodic memory tasks and to data from semantic memory tasks. As such, it provides further support for the claim that general principles of memory exist and that they apply widely over different time scales, different tests, and different hypothetical underlying memory systems.

Serial Position Functions in Episodic and Semantic Memory

According to multiple-systems theorists, episodic memory is the system that supports memories of personally experienced events and that enables humans to figuratively travel back in time. In contrast, semantic memory is a separate system that supports memory for decontextualized general knowledge, including facts, concepts, and so forth (Tulving, 2002). One potential problem for this view is the finding that when people recall a list of items that they have just experienced (an episodic memory task), the data look strikingly similar to those observed when people are asked to recall the presidents of the United States (a semantic memory task). In both cases, a characteristic serial position function obtains: Early list items are well recalled (the primacy effect), the last few list items are also well recalled (the recency effect), but midlist items are poorly recalled.

The question is whether episodic and semantic serial position functions have a common underlying cause, and the debate goes back to the modal model or dual store theory of memory. According to this view (e.g., Glanzer, 1972), primacy effects in episodic tasks arise because the first few items gain additional rehearsals and can be transferred from short-term to long-term memory. The recency effect is due to the dumping of items from short-term memory: When the list ends, the last few items remain in short-term memory. The items in the middle have the lowest level of performance because they cannot be rehearsed as much as the first few items and are less likely to be left in short-term memory once list presentation is over. …

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