Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Memory as Discrimination: What Distraction Reveals

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Memory as Discrimination: What Distraction Reveals

Article excerpt

Published online: 10 May 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Recalling information involves the process of discriminating between relevant and irrelevant information stored in memory. Not infrequently, the relevant information needs to be selected from among a series of related possibilities. This is likely to be particularly problematic when the irrelevant possibilities not only are temporally or contextually appropriate, but also overlap semantically with the target or targets. Here, we investigate the extent to which purely perceptual features that discriminate between irrelevant and target material can be used to overcome the negative impact of contextual and semantic relatedness. Adopting a distraction paradigm, it is demonstrated that when distractors are interleaved with targets presented either visually (Experiment 1) or auditorily (Experiment 2), a within-modality semantic distraction effect occurs; semantically related distractors impact upon recall more than do unrelated distractors. In the semantically related condition, the number of intrusions in recall is reduced, while the number of correctly recalled targets is simultaneously increased by the presence of perceptual cues to relevance (color features in Experiment 1 or speaker's gender in Experiment 2). However, as is demonstrated in Experiment 3, even presenting semantically related distractors in a language and a sensory modality (spoken Welsh) distinct from that of the targets (visual English) is insufficient to eliminate false recalls completely or to restore correct recall to levels seen with unrelated distractors . Together, the study shows how semantic and nonsemantic discriminability shape patterns of both erroneous and correct recall.

Keywords Memory . Discrimination . Distraction . Front-end control . Retrieval orientation

Errors of memory can take a variety of forms. One common type of a memory error is simply unsuccessful retrieval of information from memory. For example, when a person is struggling to remember where his or her car is parked, a lack of information in his or her mind concerning the whereabouts of the car constitutes a clear failure of memory retrieval. Another broad class of memory failures consists of erroneous retrieval of contextually inappropriate information. The person can have a clear image of parking on a spot under a big oak. But does it necessarily mean that his or her car is now parked there? Or maybe he or she was planning to park there-the mental image of this plan serving as the basis for remembering-but because there was no space, he or she parked somewhere else. Or perhaps the car was parked there yesterday, an event that he or she now remembers, and today he or she parked closer to her workplace. As these examples show, accurate memory is not only about retrieval of relevant information, but also about not retrieving information that, despite being similar to sought information, is contextually inappropriate.

Although the generation of inappropriate false memories has often been investigated independently of the process of accurate retrieval, recent theorizing has conceptualized retrieval as a process of discrimination between relevant and irrelevant information (Goh & Lu, 2012; Hunt, 2003; Nairne, 2005; Poirier et al., 2012; although note that there is a long tradition of viewing memory in this way-e.g., buildup and release from proactive interference (PI) are straightforwardly interpreted as consequences of a gradual decrease and then a sudden increase in discriminability; Watkins & Watkins, 1975; Wickens, Born, & Allen, 1963). According to this formulation, conditions that improve memory discrimination should reduce the incidence both of erroneous retrieval and of failures to retrieve.Memory discrimination is facilitated when more diagnostic cues are available, which tap directly into sought information to the exclusion of irrelevant information (cf. Nairne, 2002). …

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