Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Intention to Learn Influences the Word Frequency Effect in Recall but Not in Recognition Memory

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Intention to Learn Influences the Word Frequency Effect in Recall but Not in Recognition Memory

Article excerpt

Watkins, LeCompte, and Kim (2000) suggested that the recall advantage for rare words in mixed lists is due to a compensatory study strategy that favors the rare words. They found the advantage was reversed when rare and common words were studied under incidental learning conditions. The present study investigated the possibility that the rare-word advantage in recognition memory is also the result of a compensatory study strategy. Experiment 1 replicated the findings of Watkins et al. that the rare-word advantage in recall is eliminated under incidental learning conditions. In contrast, Experiment 2 showed that the rare-word advantage in recognition memory is maintained under both intentional and incidental learning conditions. Experiment 3 replicated the results of Experiments 1 and 2 using different stimuli and a different orienting task. Finally, Experiment 4 showed that the rare-word advantage in recognition is maintained with pure lists. These findings show that the rare-word advantage in recognition memory is not the result of a compensatory study strategy. Instead, rare words are encoded more distinctively than common words, irrespective of participants' intention to remember them.

The word frequency effect (WFE) continues to present a challenge for theoretical accounts of recall and recognition memory. Early studies suggested a frequency paradox, in which common words are more easily recalled than rare words, but rare words are more easily recognized (Anderson & Bower, 1972; McCormack, 1972). However, the paradox was resolved by showing that the effects of frequency depend on whether rare and common words are studied in mixed or in pure lists (Gillund & Shiffrin, 1984; Gregg, Montgomery, & Castano, 1980). When memory is tested by free recall, studying pure lists of all common or all rare words typically leads to a recall advantage for the common words (DeLosh & McDaniel, 1996; May & Tryk, 1970; Shepard, 1967). Studying mixed lists containing both common and rare words either eliminates or reverses this effect (DeLosh & McDaniel, 1996; MacLeod & Kampe, 1996). In contrast, investigations of the WFE in recognition memory typically show an advantage for rare words, regardless of whether they are studied in mixed lists (Allen & Garton, 1968; Duchek & Neely, 1989; Shepard, 1967) or in pure lists (Gorman, 1961; McCormack & Swenson, 1972). More recently, Watkins, LeCompte, and Kim (2000) showed that the direction of the WFE in recall depends also on whether words are studied under intentional or incidental learning conditions. The aim of the present study was to investigate whether the WFE in recognition memory is similarly influenced by intention to learn.

As discussed above, recall favors common words when participants study pure lists, but this advantage is eliminated when participants study mixed lists. Watkins et al. (2000) referred to this as the mixed-list paradox. They reported a series of experiments testing the view that participants who study mixed lists adopt a compensatory strategy favoring the rare words, thereby overriding the advantage for common words observed with pure lists. According to this account, participants who study mixed lists assume that the rare words will be more difficult to remember than the common words and attempt to compensate by allocating more attention to the rare words. This proposal was previously tested and rejected by Gregg et al. (1980), who attempted to prevent the use of a compensatory strategy by asking participants (1) to attend to each word only while it was on the screen and (2) following the presentation of each word, to count backward in threes from a given number for 10 sec. If the failure to find an advantage for common words in mixed lists was the result of a compensatory study strategy favoring the rare words, precluding such a strategy should have restored the advantage. However, despite these constraints, no advantage for common words was observed. …

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