Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

The Role of Spurious Feature Familiarity in Recognition Memory

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

The Role of Spurious Feature Familiarity in Recognition Memory

Article excerpt

In two experiments, we investigated the role of perceptual information in spurious recognition judgments. Participants viewed lists of words in various unusual fonts. The frequency with which each font was presented was manipulated at study: Each font was presented with 1 or 12 different words in Experiment 1 and with 1 or 20 words in Experiment 2. Although the participants were instructed in a word recognition test to judge only on the basis of the word, regardless of font, there were significantly more false alarms for new words seen in a previously presented font than for new words presented in a novel (not seen at study) font in Experiment 1. In Experiment 2, the participants were significantly more likely to make a false alarm to a new word seen in a font that had been used to present 20 words during study than to a font that had been used to present only 1 word during study. The data show a mirror effect, in which words tested in low-frequency fonts produced more hits and fewer false alarms than did words tested in high-frequency fonts. These results show that irrelevant perceptual information plays a role in recognition judgments by providing spurious sources of familiarity and, thus, provide evidence that perceptual information is represented and processed in the same way as semantic information.

The phenomenon of false memories has received considerable attention in recent years. Roediger and McDermott's (1995) reexamination of Deese's (1959) paradigm has been seminal in this exploration of the properties conducive to spurious recollection. In this article, we explore factors that might exacerbate human susceptibility to spurious recognition. Roediger and McDermott (1995), like Deese, used sets of semantically related words to produce spurious recall and recognition of a critical nonpresented item (CNI) that was essentially the prototype of the set of studied elements (e.g., sleep is the CNI for bed, night, dream, and yawn) but was not, in fact, studied. This effect has primarily been attributed to semantic similarities between words on the list and the CNI (e.g., Robinson & Roediger, 1997; Roediger & McDermott, 1995, 2000). Even in Loftus's (1975, 1979) real-world studies, the misinformation involved the insertion of a semantically related term (e.g., yield sign for stop sign).

Indeed, the term semantic memory has often been used interchangeably with long-term memory, suggesting that nonsemantic aspects of our memory are somehow in a different state or memory system. Some researchers have speculated that use of perceptual information may be automatic, whereas conceptual information requires conscious application (Craik, Moscovitch, & McDowd, 1994). Roediger (1990) has stated that one of the major dissociations between explicit and implicit memory is that explicit tests, although sensitive to semantic elaboration, are relatively insensitive to changes in perceptual features. In contrast, research has shown that perceptual information does influence performance on implicit tasks (e.g., Jacoby, 1983; Rajaram & Roediger, 1993; Roediger & Blaxton, 1987). Jacoby and Whitehouse (1989) found that a subliminal flash of a word just prior to its visible presentation increased participants' tendency to respond old. They interpreted this finding as showing that the brief flash leads to more fluent processing of the word and that participants attribute perceptual fluency to recognitionbased familiarity. This effect is modulated by the perceptual characteristics of the word (Jacoby & Hayman, 1987). That is, words that look more similar to their first presentation are more easily identified than those that look different. However, their result does not rule out the possibility that the word was semantically primed by its earlier presentation. The goal of this article is to demonstrate that familiarity judgments can be based on perceptual information alone; therefore, in the present experiments, we used a manipulation that isolated the effects of perceptual information (divorced from semantic information) on spurious recognition in explicit tasks. …

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