Original Article

Psychological Research

, Volume 66, Issue 4, pp 287-297

First online:

Functional decay of memory for tasks

  • Erik M. AltmannAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA

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Correct performance often depends on remembering the task one has been instructed to do. When the task periodically changes, memory for the current task must decay (lose activation) to prevent it from interfering with memory for the next task when that is encoded. Three task-switching experiments examine this decay process. Each shows within-run slowing, a performance decline occurring as memory for the current task decays. In experiment 1, slowing is attenuated when memory for the task is optional, suggesting that memory is indeed causal. Experiment 2 finds slowing despite a flat hazard rate for task instructions, suggesting that slowing is not an artifact of instruction anticipation. Experiment 3 finds slowing in the familiar alternating-runs paradigm (Rogers & Monsell, 1995), suggesting that it may lurk elsewhere. A process model of activation explains within-run slowing and relates it to switch cost and "restart cost" (Allport & Wylie, 2000) in functional terms.