Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Do People Remember the Temporal Proximity of Unrelated Events?

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Do People Remember the Temporal Proximity of Unrelated Events?

Article excerpt

In the present study, we tested the ability to remember the temporal proximity of two unrelated events that had happened within 7 days of one another. In three experiments, 1,909 participants judged whether pairs of news events, ranging in age from 1 month to about 6 years, had occurred within a week of each other and, if not, how far apart they had occurred. Some event pairs were related, and others were unrelated. For unrelated event pairs, same-week and separation judgments were very poor. Accuracy was much greater for both kinds of judgments when the events were related. Participants often guessed the separation of unrelated event pairs, whereas they frequently deduced the separation or remembered the proximity of related event pairs. For both types of pairs, the participants reported using the strength of the memories or the general period in which the events had occurred.

After the passage of months or years, are people able to remember the temporal proximity of unrelated events that occurred at about the same time? If two memorable, but unrelated, news events occurred within the same week, would we be able to remember their closeness in time 1 year later? The answer to these questions could be useful for constraining theories of memory for the times of past events, especially notions about the role of automatic processes (e.g., Aimone, Wiles, & Gage, 2006; G. D. A. Brown & Chater, 2001).

Relevant information about memory for temporal proximity comes from a number of laboratory studies of separation judgments (Hintzman & Block, 1973; Hintzman, Summers, & Block, 1975; Jackson, Michon, Boonstra, de Jonge, & De Velde Harsenhorst, 1986; Underwood, 1977; Underwood & Malmi, 1978). In a typical task, participants are presented with a long series of words and are later asked to judge the number of items that intervened between members of a test pair. These studies show that memory for the separation of unrelated pairs is very poor (Hintzman & Block, 1973; Hintzman et al., 1975; Underwood & Malmi, 1978). They also demonstrate that judgments of separations are much more accurate than chance expectations when the second item in a pair is identical to or is related to the first (Hintzman & Block, 1973; Hintzman et al., 1975). Given the nature of the stimuli and the tasks, it seems likely that an automatic process, such as recursive reminding (Hintzman, 2004; Hintzman & Block, 1973; Hintzman et al., 1975), is responsible for the accuracy of judgments of related items. Furthermore, the near-chance performance in judging the separations of unrelated items indicates that information about separations of unrelated events is not created automatically.

It is not clear, however, whether the findings of the laboratory studies "scale up" to the very long time scales of memory for life events or public events, because different mechanisms may be involved on the very different time scales. For example, automatic processes may create shortlasting information about temporal relations between related events, but such information may be lost over long spans of time (Friedman, 2007b). On the other hand, when one remembers public events or events from one's own life, the processes underlying reconstruction theories of memory for time (e.g., Friedman & Wilkins, 1985; Hintzman, Block, & Summers, 1973) may play an important role. These include noticing or being told about the temporal relations around the times that the second event occurred and inferring the relation at the time of testing.

Although there have been no studies designed to test memory for proximity on long time scales, there are incidental findings from a number of studies of memory for personal or news events. Some of these findings appear to support the ability to remember the temporal proximity of events that occurred within a few days of one another, even after long spans of time (Loftus & Marburger, 1983; Shum, 1998). …

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