Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Source-Constrained Retrieval and Survival Processing

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Source-Constrained Retrieval and Survival Processing

Article excerpt

Published online: 5 August 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Three experiments investigated the mnemonic effects of source-constrained retrieval in the survival-processing paradigm. Participants were asked to make survival-based or control decisions (pleasantness or moving judgments) about items prior to a source identification test. The source test was followed by a surprise free recall test for all items processed during the experiment, including the new items (foils) presented during the source test. For the source test itself, when asked about the content of prior processing-did you make a survival or a pleasantness decision about this item?-no differences were found between the survival and control conditions. The final free recall data revealed a different pattern: When participants were asked to decide whether an item had been processed previously for survival, that item was subsequently recalled better than when the source query asked about pleasantness or relevance to a moving scenario. This mnemonic boost occurred across-the-board-for items processed during the initial rating phase and for the new items. These data extend the generality of source-constrained retrieval effects and have implications for understanding the proximate mechanisms that underlie the oft-replicated survival-processing advantage in recall and recognition.

Keywords Evolution * Memory * Source-constrained retrieval * Recall

A number of recent papers have reported that processing information for its survival relevance leads to particularly robust recall, as compared with traditional encoding procedures (Nairne, Thompson, & Pandeirada, 2007). In the typical experimental setup, participants are asked to imagine themselves stranded in the grasslands of a foreign land without survival materials. Over the next few months, they will need to find steady supplies of food and water and protect themselves from predators. The participants' task is to rate the relevance of words to this imagined survival scenario. The rating task is followed by a surprise retention test, usually free recall, and performance after survival processing is compared with a variety of control conditions. A few seconds of survival processing leads to better recall than forming a visual image of an item, relating the item to the self, engaging in prototypical deep processing, or processing the relevance of items to a variety of control scenarios (e.g., Kang, McDermott, & Cohen, 2008; Nairne, Pandeirada, & Thompson, 2008; Otgaar et al., 2011; Weinstein, Bugg, & Roediger, 2008). Survival processing even matches or betters the "gold standard" for improving free recall-combining individual-item and relational processing in the same list (Burns, Burns, & Hwang, 2011; Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008).

Although the survival-processing effect is an established and robust empirical phenomenon, at least when recall and recognition are used as the memory measures, its interpretation remains controversial. In their original paper, Nairne et al. (2007) offered a functional account rooted in evolutionary theory: Our capacity to remember evolved, subject to nature's criterion of fitness enhancement, and therefore our memory systems are sensibly "tuned" to the processing of fitness-relevant information. However, Nairne et al. (2007) leftunspecified the proximate mechanisms that might lead to such a "tuning." Avariety of accounts have subsequently been offered. For example, at least part of the survival-processing advantage typically seen in free recall may be accounted for by "congruity" between the survival task and the to-beremembered target words (Butler, Kang, & Roediger, 2009; Nairne & Pandeirada, 2011). Moreover, traditional explanatory mechanisms, such as "deep processing" or elaboration, may be sufficient to account for survival advantages in some cases. Kroneisen and Erdfelder (2011) showed that survival-processing advantages emerged onlywhen the processing task afforded a sufficient amount of elaboration. …

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