Memory & Cognition

, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 349–360 | Cite as

Unmasking the component-general and component-specific aspects of primary and secondary memory in the immediate free recall task

  • Bradley S. Gibson
  • Dawn M. Gondoli


The immediate free recall (IFR) task has been commonly used to estimate the capacities of the primary memory (PM) and secondary memory (SM) components of working memory (WM). Using this method, the correlation between estimates of the PM and SM components has hovered around zero, suggesting that PM and SM represent fully distinct and dissociable components of WM. However, this conclusion has conflicted with more recent studies that have observed moderately strong, positive correlations between PM and SM when separate attention and retrieval tasks are used to estimate these capacities, suggesting that PM and SM represent at least some related capacities. The present study attempted to resolve this empirical discrepancy by investigating the extent to which the relation between estimates of PM and SM might be suppressed by a third variable that operates during the recall portion of the IFR task. This third variable was termed “strength of recency” (SOR) in the present study as it reflected differences in the extent to which individuals used the same experimentally-induced recency recall initiation strategy. As predicted, the present findings showed that the positive correlation between estimates of PM and SM grew from small to medium when the indirect effect of SOR was controlled across two separate sets of studies. This finding is important because it provides stronger support for the distinction between “component-general” and “component-specific” aspects of PM and SM; furthermore, a proof is presented that demonstrates a limitation of using regression techniques to differentiate general and specific aspects of these components.


Working memory Primary memory Secondary memory 


Author Notes

The authors wish to thank Ke-Hai Yuan and Miao Yang for their assistance in deriving the equations listed in Appendix A, and to Zach Shipstead for providing the data reported in Experiment 2. The data and analyses reported in this manuscript are available by request to the first author. The original study reported in Gibson et al. (2012) and re-analyzed here was funded by the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, which is funded in part by Grant # RR025761 from the National Institutes of Health, National Center for Research Resources, Clinical and Translational Sciences Award.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Notre DameNotre DameUSA

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