Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Prospective Memory: Effects of Divided Attention on Spontaneous Retrieval

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Prospective Memory: Effects of Divided Attention on Spontaneous Retrieval

Article excerpt

Published online: 18 September 2013

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract We examined the effects of divided attention on the spontaneous retrieval of a prospective memory intention. Participants performed an ongoing lexical decision task with an embedded prospective memory demand, and also performed a divided-attention task during some segments of lexical decision trials. In all experiments, monitoring was highly discouraged, and we observed no evidence that participants engaged monitoring processes. In Experiment 1, performing a moderately demanding divided-attention task (a digit detection task) did not affect prospective memory performance. In Experiment 2, performing a more challenging divided-attention task (random number generation) impaired prospective memory. Experiment 3 showed that this impairment was eliminated when the prospective memory cue was perceptually salient. Taken together, the results indicate that spontaneous retrieval is not automatic and that challenging divided-attention tasks interfere with spontaneous retrieval and not with the execution of a retrieved intention.

Keywords Spontaneous retrieval . Prospective memory . Divided attention

Daily life is filled with prospective memory demands, from remembering to take medication to remembering to pick up children from school. Intuitively, it seems that we are espe- cially likely to forget to carry out prospective memory inten- tions when we are busy (McDaniel & Einstein, 2007). For example, we might forget to take medication when we are thinking about an upcoming presentation, or we might forget to pick up our kids when we are engaged in conversation with a neighbor. Consistent with this intuition, laboratory research has clearly demonstrated that increasing the atten- tional demands of the ongoing task interferes with prospective memory (Einstein, Smith, McDaniel, & Shaw, 1997;Marsh, Hancock,&Hicks,2002;Marsh&Hicks,1998;McDaniel & Scullin, 2010; McNerney & West, 2007; West, Scolaro, & Bailey, 2011).

An important theoretical question is what prospective memory processes are compromised by making the ongoing task more attentionally demanding by dividing attention. Prospective memory tasks can be accomplished via monitor- ing processes, in which people expend attentional resources to keep the intention activated while performing ongoing activ- ities (Burgess, Quayle, & Frith, 2001) or to search the envi- ronment for the prospective memory cue (Smith, 2003). Regardless of the exact process, monitoring is thought to require capacity and to be a proactive process that needs to occur before processing of the target event in order to recog- nize it as a signal for an action. For example, a driver traveling in a new city might attend to the street signs while searching for an upcoming turn. Because of the complete agreement that such monitoring processes require working memory and/or attentional resources (Burgess et al., 2001;Einstein& McDaniel, 2005; McDaniel & Einstein, 2000;Smith,2003; Smith & Bayen, 2005; Smith, Hunt, McVay, & McConnell, 2007), it is clear that an attentionally demanding divided- attention task should interfere with monitoring. Consistent with this expectation, previous research has demonstrated that divided attention impairs monitoring during vigilance tasks (Parasuraman & Davies, 1977). In the field of prospective memory, Marsh and Hicks (1998) demonstrated that divided- attention tasks that demand attentional resources (e.g., a random number generation task) disrupt prospective mem- ory performance (see also McDaniel & Scullin, 2010). Noting that all of Marsh and Hicks's executive tasks re- quired planning and monitoring, the authors suggested that these tasks interfered with an effortful search for the pro- spective memory cues.

Recent research has shown that prospective memory re- trieval can also occur via spontaneous retrieval processes, in which a cue that has been associated with an intended action triggers retrieval of that intention in the absence of monitoring (Einstein et al. …

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