Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Individuals with Low Working Memory Spans Show Greater Interference from Irrelevant Information Because of Poor Source Monitoring, Not Greater Activation

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Individuals with Low Working Memory Spans Show Greater Interference from Irrelevant Information Because of Poor Source Monitoring, Not Greater Activation

Article excerpt

Published online: 22 October 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Although individuals with high and low working memory (WM) span appear to differ in the extent to which irrelevant information interferes with their performance on WM tasks, the locus of this interference is not clear. The present study investigated whether, when performing a WM task, high- and low-span individuals differ in the activation of formerly relevant, but now irrelevant items, and/or in their ability to correctly identify such irrelevant items. This was done in two experiments, both of which used modified complex WM span tasks. In Experiment 1, the span task included an embedded lexical decision task designed to obtain an implicit measure of the activation of both currently and formerly relevant items. In Experiment 2, the span task included an embedded recognition judgment task designed to obtain an explicit measure of both item and source recognition ability. The results of these experiments indicate that low-span individuals do not hold irrelevant information in a more active state in memory than high-span individuals, but rather that low-span individuals are significantly poorer at identifying such information as irrelevant at the time of retrieval. These results suggest that differences in the ability to monitor the source of information, rather than differences in the activation of irrelevant information, are the more important determinant of performance on WM tasks.

Keywords Working memory . Individual differences . Irrelevant information . Source memory

Working memory (WM), the ability to temporarily maintain and manipulate a limited amount of information (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Baddeley, 1986), has become an increasingly important construct in many areas of psychology. Individual differences in WM ability are important in a wide range of higher order cognitive functions, including reading comprehension (e.g., Daneman & Carpenter, 1980;Just&Carpenter,1992), abstract reasoning (e.g., Engle, Tuholski, Laughlin, & Conway, 1999; Unsworth & Engle, 2007b), and learning (e.g., Lilienthal, Tamez, Myerson, & Hale, 2013; Kyllonen & Stephens, 1990). However, exactly what these individual differences in WM reflect is still somewhat unclear. Although numerous theories of WM posit possible sources of such individual differences, many of these suggestions lack sufficient empirical support.

One possible source of individual differences in WM is the ability to retrieve relevant information from secondary memory in the presence of irrelevant distractors, including the ability to resist proactive interference. Proactive interference occurs when previously acquired information disrupts one's ability to learn and remember new information (e.g., Keppel &Underwood,1962), and the amount of proactive interference on a memory task has been shown to increase with the number of previous lists, negatively impacting memory performance. Many studies have shown that as the number of previous lists increases, participants tend to recall fewer correct items and are more likely to make an intrusion error, such as recalling an item from a previous list (e.g., Greenberg & Underwood, 1950; May, Hasher, & Kane, 1999;Kane&Engle,2000).

The results of some studies have also suggested that individuals with low WM spans are significantly more affected by proactive interference when performing a memory task than are individuals with high WM spans. For example, Kane and Engle (2000) had participants learn a number of lists of words from the same semantic category, and although the number of correct items that could be recalled decreased for everyone across subsequent lists, this decrease was significantly greater for those with low WM spans. In addition, Bunting (2006) directly manipulated proactive interference across trials of complex span task and found that only performance on high interference trials correlated with fluid intelligence. …

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