Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Cognitive Control of Familiarity: Directed Forgetting Reduces Proactive Interference in Working Memory

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Cognitive Control of Familiarity: Directed Forgetting Reduces Proactive Interference in Working Memory

Article excerpt

Abstract Proactive interference (PI) occurs when previously learned information interferes with new learning. In a working memory task, PI induces longer response times and more errors to recent negative probes than to new probes, presumably because the recent probe'sfamiliarity invites a "yes" response. Warnings, longer intertrial intervals, and the increased contextual salience of the probes can reduce but not eliminate PI, suggesting that cognitive control over PI is limited. Here we tested whether control exerted in the form of intentional forgetting performed during working memory can reduce the magnitude of PI. In two experiments, participants performed a working memory task with directed-forgetting instructions and the occasional presentation of recent probes. Surprise long-term memory testing indicated better memory for to-be-remembered than for to-beforgotten items, documenting the classic directed-forgetting effect. Critically, in working memory, PI was virtually eliminated for recent probes from prior to-be-forgotten lists, as compared to recent probes from prior to-be-remembered lists. Thus cognitive control, when executed via directed forgetting, can reduce the adverse and otherwise persistent interference from familiarity, an effect that we attribute to attenuated memory representations of the to-be-forgotten items.

Keywords Directed forgetting . Proactive interference . Workingmemory . Long-term memory

Memory interference permeates our daily lives. For instance, it underlies our tendency to accidentally enter an old password when trying to login to a website, or our inadvertent approach to the parking space where we had parked our car yesterday, instead of to where we parked today. These examples illustrate how proactive interference (PI) from previously learned information interferes with current performance (see, e.g., Anderson & Neely, 1996; Postman & Underwood, 1973). Because of these adverse interference effects, considerable research effort has aimed to understand the underlying mechanisms of these effects and to identify methods that can ameliorate interference in both short- and long-term memory. The aim of the present study was to test whether or not the intentional control of working memory contents through directed forgetting can serve to decrease the amount of PI engendered by the to-be-forgotten information.

Proactive interference within working memory

Although more frequently studied in the long-term domain (for a review, see Anderson & Neely, 1996), PI is also clearly evident within working memory (e.g., Carroll et al. 2010; McElree & Dosher, 1989;Monsell,1978;Nee&Jonides, 2008, 2009; Nee, Jonides, & Berman, 2007; Ralph et al. 2011; Zhang, Leung, & Johnson, 2003). In one canonical working memory task, participants must hold a set of memoranda in mind across a delay period, after which their memory is tested for the current memory set (i.e., with a modified Sternberg item recognition test; Sternberg, 1966). People generally take longer to correctly reject a probe item that was included in the previous memory set than to correctly reject a new, or relatively nonrecent, probe item (e.g., Jonides et al. 2000; Nee et al. 2007). This lengthened response time to recent probes indicates the influence of PI. Several accounts of potential mechanisms that may underlie PI have been reported (see Jonides & Nee, 2006), many of which rely on the familiarity of recent probes as the source of the conflict. For instance, according to the biased-competition model (Desimone & Duncan, 1995; Kan & Thompson-Schill, 2004), the temporal familiarity of a recent probe biases participants toward an affirmative response when a negative response is truly required. Participants must then overcome this familiarity-induced conflict to achieve the correct response. This process takes time and is not always fully effective, and these factors underlie the lengthened response times (RTs) and decreased accuracies associated with PI. …

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