Serial Position Effects in Recognition Memory for Odors: A Reexamination

By Miles, Christopher; Hodder, Kathryn | Memory & Cognition, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Serial Position Effects in Recognition Memory for Odors: A Reexamination


Miles, Christopher, Hodder, Kathryn, Memory & Cognition


Seven experiments examined recognition memory for sequentially presented odors. Following Reed (2000), participants were presented with a sequence of odors and then required to identify an odor from the sequence in a test probe comprising 2 odors. The pattern of results obtained by Reed (2000, although statistically marginal) demonstrated enhanced recognition for odors presented at the start (primacy) and end (recency) of the sequence: a result that we failed to replicate in any of the experiments reported here. Experiments 1 and 3 were designed to replicate Reed (2000), employing five-item and seven-item sequences, respectively, and each demonstrated significant recency, with evidence of primacy in Experiment 3 only. Experiment 2 replicated Experiment 1, with reduced interstimulus intervals, and produced a null effect of serial position. The ease with which the odors could be verbally labeled was manipulated in Experiments 4 and 5. Nameable odors produced a null effect of serial position (Experiment 4), and hard-to-name odors produced a pronounced recency effect (Experiment 5); nevertheless, overall rates of recognition were remarkably similar for the two experiments at around 70%. Articulatory suppression reduced recognition accuracy (Experiment 6), but recency was again present in the absence of primacy. Odor recognition performance was immune to the effects of an interleaved odor (Experiment 7), and, again, both primacy and recency effects were absent. There was no evidence of olfactory fatigue: Recognition accuracy improved across trials (Experiment 1). It is argued that the results of the experiments reported here are generally consistent with that body of work employing hard-to-name visual stimuli, where recency is obtained in the absence of primacy when the retention interval is short.

The extent to which the results of tests of memory for olfactory stimuli resemble those for other modalities, in terms of both their pattern and their reliability, is equivocal. Indeed, Herz and Engen ( 1996) conclude that the current lack of data precludes any conclusions with respect to both the shape and the duration of short-term olfactory memory. However, one area in which there appears to be a striking contradiction in the literature concerns the effect of serial presentation of odors on immediate recognition for those odors. In a typical recognition task, the participant receives a sequence of items followed by two test items, one of which is familiar, and the participant is required to identify the familiar item. This is referred to as a two-alternative forced choice (2AFC) task (see e.g., Reed, 2000). Variations on this form of recognition task in the visual domain using sequences of novel, hardto-name stimuli with immediate testing (e.g., unfamiliar faces, digitized snowflakes) generally produce recency effects in the absence of primacy effects (Avons, Ward, & Melling, 2004; Kerr, Ward, & Avons, 1998; Neath, 1993; Phillips & Christie, 1977; Ward, Avons, & Melling, 2005). This particular pattern of recognition was originally established by Phillips and Christie (1977), using visually presented patterns formed by randomly filled cells in a 4 × 4 matrix. Using a same-different test with reverse testing of serial order, they reported a recognition rate of 96.9% for the last pattern in the sequence. In contrast, recognition for earlier items was lower (although above chance) at 62.6%. The latter result was interpreted as reflecting the action of a stable long-term memory component with the capacity to represent many patterns, whereas the recency effect was taken to reflect the action of a single-item short-term memory store. Thus, the data were nicely encapsulated within a two-stage information-processing model. It is worthwhile to note, however, that these recognition tasks typically employ tests of novel items tested in reverse order; that is, the most recently presented item is tested first, and subsequent testing proceeds backward through the list. …

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Serial Position Effects in Recognition Memory for Odors: A Reexamination
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