Interference within the focus of attention: Working memory tasks reflect more than temporary maintenance

Zach Shipstead*, Randall W. Engle

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

One approach to understanding working memory (WM) holds that individual differences in WM capacity arise from the amount of information a person can store in WM over short periods of time. This view is especially prevalent in WM research conducted with the visual arrays task. Within this tradition, many researchers have concluded that the average person can maintain approximately 4 items in WM. The present study challenges this interpretation by demonstrating that performance on the visual arrays task is subject to time-related factors that are associated with retrieval from long-term memory. Experiment 1 demonstrates that memory for an array does not decay as a product of absolute time, which is consistent with both maintenance- and retrieval-based explanations of visual arrays performance. Experiment 2 introduced a manipulation of temporal discriminability by varying the relative spacing of trials in time. We found that memory for a target array was significantly influenced by its temporal compression with, or isolation from, a preceding trial. Subsequent experiments extend these effects to sub-capacity set sizes and demonstrate that changes in the size of k are meaningful to prediction of performance on other measures of WM capacity as well as general fluid intelligence. We conclude that performance on the visual arrays task does not reflect a multi-item storage system but instead measures a person's ability to accurately retrieve information in the face of proactive interference.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)277-289
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition
Volume39
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2013

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • working memory
  • attention
  • visual arrays
  • temporal discriminability
  • SHORT-TERM-MEMORY
  • LATENT-VARIABLE ANALYSIS
  • PROACTIVE-INTERFERENCE
  • INDIVIDUAL-DIFFERENCES
  • SERIAL ATTENTION
  • RELATIVE AMOUNTS
  • ITEM SIMILARITY
  • FREE-RECALL
  • CAPACITY
  • INHIBITION

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