Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Role of Stimulus Type in List Length Effects in Recognition Memory

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Role of Stimulus Type in List Length Effects in Recognition Memory

Article excerpt

Published online: 9 December 2011

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2011

Abstract While many studies have investigated the list length effect in recognition memory, few have done so with stimuli other than words. This article presents the results of four list length experiments that involved word pairs, faces, fractals, and photographs of scenes as the stimuli. A significant list length effect was identified when faces and fractals were the stimuli, but the effect was nonsignificant when the stimuli were word pairs or photographs of scenes. These findings suggest that the intrastimulus similarity is what dictates whether list length has a significant effect on recognition performance. As is the case with words, word pairs and photographs of scenes are not sufficiently similar to generate detectable item interference.

Keywords Recognition . List length effect

The list length effect is the finding that recognition performance is superior for items that are part of a short list at study than for items that were part of a long list. The issue of whether there is a genuine list length effect in recognition memory or whether this is a finding that has resulted from the influence of confounding variables in past studies is critical, because the list length effect can provide a test of models of recognition memory. There are two main groups of recognition memory models: item noise models and context noise models. Item noise models posit that interference in recognition memory originates from the other items presented with the test cue at study. In context noise models, there is no interference from other list items, but rather, from the previous contexts in which the test item has been seen. Consequently, item noise models predict a significant effect of list length on recognition performance, but context noise models do not. Thus, investigating the nature of the list length effect is critical to evaluating models of recognition memory.

The list length effect finding has been well replicated in the recognition memory literature (e.g., Bowles & Glanzer, 1983; Cary & Reder, 2003; Gronlund & Elam, 1994; Murnane & Shiffrin, 1991; Shiffrin, Ratcliff, Murnane, & Nobel, 1993; Strong, 1912; Underwood, 1978). However, in recent years, a number of studies have not identified a significant effect of list length on recognition performance (e.g., Buratto & Lamberts, 2008; Dennis & Humphreys, 2001; Dennis, Lee, & Kinnell, 2008; Jang & Huber, 2008; Kinnell & Dennis, 2011). Dennis and Humphreys argued that the studies that had identified a significant list length effect had done so because of a failure to adequately control for a number of potential confounds that could lead to a spurious effect. These confounds were retention interval, attention, displaced rehearsal, and contextual reinstatement.

Retention interval is related to the amount of time that passes between when an item is studied and tested. Typically, short-list study items have a shorter retention interval, but this can be lengthened with a period of filler activity, so that the retention interval is equivalent to that with a long list. The filler activity can come either before (proactive design) or after (retroactive design) the short list. In addition, the long-list test items come from either the end (proactive design) or the beginning (retroactive design) of the long study list, corresponding to whether the filler for the short list came before or after the presentation of the items (Cary & Reder, 2003; Dennis & Humphreys, 2001; see Fig. 1). The retroactive design control for retention interval can also lead to differential rehearsal of list items, with the filler period allowing for rehearsal of short-list items, with no equivalent opportunity for long-list items. Making the filler activity as engaging as possible in an attempt to discourage rehearsal can help to counteract this difference (Cary & Reder, 2003; Dennis & Humphreys, 2001). …

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