Complex Span and N-Back Measures of Working Memory: A Meta-Analysis

By Redick, Thomas S.; Lindsey, Dakota R. B. | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Complex Span and N-Back Measures of Working Memory: A Meta-Analysis


Redick, Thomas S., Lindsey, Dakota R. B., Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


Published online: 4 June 2013

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Working memory is a construct of primary relevance to many areas of psychology. Two types of tasks have been used to measure working memory, primarily in different research areas: Complex span tasks are commonly used in behavioral studies in the cognitive and individual-differences literature, whereas n-back tasks have been used more frequently incognitive neuroscience studies investigating the neural under-pinnings of working memory. Despite both categories of tasks being labeled as "working memory" measures, previous empirical studies have provided mixed evidence regarding the shared amount of overlapping processes between complex span and n-back tasks. The present meta-analysis showed that the complex span and n-back tasks are weakly correlated, although significant heterogeneity across studies was observed. A follow-up analysis of unpublished data indicated that the sample composition affects the relationship between the complex span and n-back tasks, following the law of diminishing returns. Finally, a separate meta-analysis indicated that the simple span and n-back tasks are correlated to the same extent as are the complex span and n-back tasks. The present findings indicate that the complex span and n-back tasks cannot be used inter-changeably as working memory measures in research applications.

Keywords Working memory . Meta-analysis . Individual differences

The studies that have directly investigated the relation between the n-back task and other WM measures always revealed weak correlations. (Szmalec, Verbruggen, Vandierendonck, & Kemps, 2011,p.148)

Correlations between the n-back task and more com- plex span measures are variable, with some studies reporting relatively low correlations . . . and others reporting high correlations. (Li, Schmiedek, Huxhold, Röcke, Smith, & Lindenberger, 2008, p. 739)

Theories of WM . . . all predict n-back and WM span tasks to measure largely the same thing, that is, to reflect primarily the same WM construct. Why don't they? (Kane, Conway, Miura & Colflesh, 2007,p.621)

Working memory (WM) is a construct that has been studied extensively in the past 50 years, since it was first mentioned by Miller, Galanter, and Pribram (1960), and especially since the influential WM model proposed by Baddeley and Hitch (1974). The concept is a more dynamic version of the short-term memory construct that was present in initial information-processing models (e.g., Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). WM has been studied extensively not only in cognitive psychology, but also in other areas, including social, clinical, developmental, and personality research. WM is critical to activities involving the goal-directed use of immediate memory, the maintenance and manipulation of recently attended information, and switching andschedulingtaskpriorities in multitasking situations. An important consideration for such research efforts is how to operationally define and measure WM. In the present research, we investi- gated the degree of overlap between two commonly used categories of WM measures: complex span and n-back tasks.

Complex span task measures of WM

Beginning with reading span (Daneman & Carpenter, 1980), "complex span" tasks became popular measures of WM, in contrast to existing "simple span" tasks such as digit span. Other complex span tasks followed: (a) counting span (Case, Kurland, & Goldberg, 1982); (b) operation span (Turner & Engle, 1989); (c) rotation span (Shah & Miyake, 1996); and (d) symmetry span (Kane et al., 2004), to name a few. Instead of being given a list of digits to serially recall, as in digit span, subjects taking an operation span task see a series of items such as the following: "IS (2 × 1) + 3 = 6 ? DOG". Because complex span tasks combine the recall of some items (e.g., words) while subjects also perform a secondary processing task (e. …

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