Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Tuned for the Future: Intentions Are Only Accessible When a Retrieval Opportunity Is Near

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Tuned for the Future: Intentions Are Only Accessible When a Retrieval Opportunity Is Near

Article excerpt

Published online: 15 June 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract The intention-superiority effect describes faster reaction times for stimuli related to an intention than for more neutral material during the retention interval. Some authors have interpreted the effect in terms of a more persistent activation of intention-related material. However, typically participants are instructed to realize the intention immediately after completing the task in which reaction times are assessed (e.g., a recognition task) in order to yield the intention-superiority effect. Thus, the reaction-time task is also associated with a retrieval context. We tested whether the proximity of a retrieval opportunity affects the intentionsuperiority effect by manipulating whether or not a recognition task indicated a retrieval opportunity. We observed an intention-superiority effect only if the task itself was a meaningful cue for a near retrieval opportunity. This finding indicates that even short-term-delayed intentions flexibly become more or less accessible, depending on the proximity of a retrieval opportunity. We further demonstrated that the intention-superiority effect is not restricted to motor tasks, but is also found for monitoring tasks when the task realization has personally relevant consequences (replicating Schult & Steffens, Memory & Cognition, 39, 1487-1495, 2011).

Keywords Memory . Intention

Prospective memory refers to our ability to retrieve and execute an intended activity at an appropriate moment in the future. A central feature of prospective memory tasks (in contrast to retrospective memory tasks) is the absence of explicit reminders to retrieve the intention when a retrieval opportunity is encountered (e.g., Graf & Uttl, 2001). For example, if you intend to post a letter, no one tells you to take the letter out of your briefcase when passing a letterbox. Thus, an important question is what brings the representation of an intention into one's mind at an appropriate retrieval opportunity.

One mechanism discussed in the literature is that unfulfilled intentions are represented at a heightened level of accessibility relative to other long-term memory contents (e.g., Ellis, 1996; Förster, Liberman, & Higgins, 2005; Goschke & Kuhl, 1993; Lewin, 1926). Heightened accessibility of intention-related concepts could support successful prospective remembering. This heightened accessibility might help with detecting retrieval cues (e.g., Mäntylä, 1996; McDaniel, Guynn, Einstein, & Breneiser, 2004), or it could lead tomore frequent recollections of the intention during the delay interval, which in turn could increase the strength of activation at the presentmoment and/or initiate monitoring at an appropriate moment to realize the intended activity (e.g., Ellis, 1996). Yet it seems unrealistic that all unfulfilled intentions are represented at a heightened level of accessibility throughout days or weeks (Lebiere&Lee, 2002; Marsh, Hicks, & Bink, 1998). Context information indicating the likelihood of a retrieval opportunity in the near future (e.g., finding a letterbox when heading to a shopping tour in the city or a walk in the park) may allow a more flexible accessibility of intentions (e.g., Förster et al., 2005; Marsh, Hicks, & Cook, 2006). The aim of the present study was to test this proposition.

Previous research using a postponed-intention paradigm has found that stimuli associated with (near-term) intentions were processed faster than equivalent stimuli not associated with intentions during postponement. In this paradigm, participants are asked to learn two short lists of actions (e.g., "setting a dinner table" and "clearing a messy desk"). After the study phase, they are instructed to carry out the actions of one list (intention-related list) but not of the other (control) list, after completing a recognition task for both lists. Thus, the realization of the intention has to be postponed until after the recognition task. …

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