Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Metacognitive Effects of Initial Question Difficulty on Subsequent Memory Performance

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Metacognitive Effects of Initial Question Difficulty on Subsequent Memory Performance

Article excerpt

Published online: 21 February 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract In two experiments, we examined whether relative retrieval fluency (the relative ease or difficulty of answering questions from memory) would be translated, via metacognitive monitoring and control processes, into an overt effect on the controlled behavior-that is, the decision whether to answer a question or abstain. Before answering a target set of multiple-choice general-knowledge questions (intermediate-difficulty questions in Exp. 1, deceptive questions in Exp. 2), the participants first answered either a set of difficult questions or a set of easy questions. For each question, they provided a forced-report answer, followed by a subjective assessment of the likelihood that their answer was correct (confidence) and by a free-report control decision-whether or not to report the answer for a potential monetary bonus (or penalty). The participants' ability to answer the target questions (forced-report proportion correct) was unaffected by the initial question difficulty. However, a predicted metacognitive contrast effect was observed: When the target questions were preceded by a set of difficult rather than easy questions, the participants were more confident in their answers to the target questions, and hence were more likely to report them, thus increasing the quantity of freely reported correct information. The option of free report was more beneficial after initial question difficulty than after initial question ease, in terms of both the gain in accuracy (Exp. 2) and a smaller cost in quantity (Exps. 1 and 2). These results demonstrate that changes in subjective experience can influence metacognitive monitoring and control, thereby affecting free-report memory performance independently of forced-report performance.

Keywords Relative fluency · Metacognition · Monitoring and control · Confidence · Free-reportmemory testing

How do people monitor whether an answer that comes to mind is correct? An implicit metacognitive cue that is used to evaluate the accuracy of retrieved information is the ease with which the information comes to mind when attempting to retrieve it (e.g., Benjamin, Bjork, & Schwarz, 1998). This heuristic, known as retrieval fluency, is usually, but not always, valid (for reviews, see Benjamin & Bjork, 1996; Kelley & Rhodes, 2002). For example, Costermans, Lories, and Ansay (1992) found higher confidence in answers to general-knowledge (GK) questions that were retrieved more quickly, whether correctly or incorrectly. In a similar vein, Kelley and Lindsay (1993) found that confidence in the answers to GK questions (but not their accuracy) increased following preexposure to plausible answers. Koriat (1995) demonstrated that the feeling of knowing that people have when they search their memory for a solicited piece of information is based on the amount of partial information accessed about the target and on the ease with which it comes to mind, regardless of its accuracy. Finally, several studies have highlighted the importance of relative fluency as a metacognitive cue, showing that the discrepancy between experienced and expected levels of fluency is critical in influencing memory judgments and other types of evaluations (e.g., Whittlesea & Williams, 1998; see also Hansen & Wänke, 2008; Jacoby & Dallas, 1981; McCabe & Balota, 2007).

The contribution of retrieval fluency to subjective confidence gains further potential importance when one considers the role that subjective confidence plays in guiding controlled behavior (e.g., Alter & Oppenheimer, 2009; Goldsmith & Koriat, 2008; Nelson & Narens, 1990; see also Finn, 2010). Thus, for example, when people are confident that they know the answer to a question, they will generally answer it; when lacking confidence, they may prefer to respond "don't know" (e.g., Koriat & Goldsmith, 1996). Koriat and Goldsmith (1996; Goldsmith & Koriat, 2008) put forward a framework for studying the metacognitive monitoring and control processes that mediate between the retrieval of information, on the one hand, and actual, free-report performance, on the other. …

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