Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

When and Why Is Ease of Retrieval Informative?

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

When and Why Is Ease of Retrieval Informative?

Article excerpt

In two experiments, we examined when and why ease of retrieval of information from memory affects behavioral frequency and attitudinal judgments. Overall, the results suggest that when the subjective experience of ease of retrieval is consistent with the expected ease of retrieval, the content of the information retrieved is used to make judgments. However, when there is a discrepancy between experienced and expected ease of retrieval, the subjective experience of ease of retrieval is used to make judgments. Ease of retrieval is more informative when the discrepancy between experienced and expected ease of retrieval cannot be attributed to task contingencies; when it can, ease of retrieval ceases to be informative.

Ask yourself to "name ten restaurants that you go to on a regular basis." Now change the requirement to "name two." If it was difficult to name 10 restaurants, you may believe that the overall population of restaurants in your memory is small, which could mean that you do not go out very often. This is because listing many instances is difficult, and the ease or difficulty with which information comes to mind is itself informative. That is, the more difficult a listing task, the smaller one thinks is the overall population from which an instance can be drawn. Behavioral frequency judgments may, accordingly, reflect the experienced ease or difficulty of recalling information from memory. Note that it is the context and task that would make an individual instance more or less easy to recall, rather than something about the event in and of itself. Said differently, recalling the names of restaurants could be easy or difficult contingent on whether the recall task was to recall just 2 or as many as 10. It is the task that makes the recall difficult, rather than a specific property of the restaurant. This subjective experience of finding a recall task easy or difficult is referred to as ease of retrieval. This is consistent with Tversky and Kahneman's (1973) availability heuristic, which states that people estimate the frequency of an event as a function of the ease with which it comes to mind. According to Tversky and Kahneman, this is because people believe that the higher the population of events in memory, the easier the recall of any one event from this population. Therefore, when people find an event easy to recall, they make the reverse inference, believing that the event is drawn from a larger population in memory.

In the domain of person perception, Schwarz et al. (1991) found that when participants were asked to recall 12 examples of assertive behaviors, they rated themselves as less assertive than when they were asked to recall only 6 examples. ease of retrieval served an informative function: When a behavior was difficult (vs. easy) to recall, participants inferred that they were lower on the trait exemplifying that behavior. Jacoby, Kelley, Brown, and Jasechko (1989) found that when names come to mind easily, people are perceived to be more famous even when the names are fictitious. ease of retrieval has also been shown to affect behavioral frequency judgments (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 1999), evaluation of one's childhood memories (Brewin & Stokou, 2002), subjective judgments of the risk of AIDS (Raghubir & Menon, 1998, 2001), product judgments (Wânke, Bohner, & Jurkowitsch, 1997), and confidence in judgments (Kelley & Lindsay, 1993).

However, these effects are not ubiquitous. When ease of retrieval as a cue is actively discredited as a source of information, it ceases to be informative. Earlier experiments have shown that the cue can be discredited if participants are given instructions that the recall task is difficult (Schwarz et al., 1991; Winkielman, Schwarz, & Belli, 1998), if participants' personal relevance for the judgment is increased (Rothman & Schwarz, 1998), and if participants are motivated to make accurate judgments (Aarts & Dijksterhuis, 1999; see Schwarz, 1998, for a review). …

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