Forgetting under difficult conditions: Item-method directed forgetting under perceptual processing constraints

Abstract

Intentional forgetting of unwanted items is effortful, yet directed forgetting seems to improve when a secondary task is performed. According to the cognitive load hypothesis of directed forgetting, allocating attentional resources to another task improves forgetting by restricting unwanted encoding of to-be-forgotten (TBF) items. Alternatively, it might be that anything that makes studying more difficult will encourage greater effort to perform the task well and therefore lead to improved intentional forgetting. To assess these proposals we imposed data-processing limitations on study words in an item-method directed forgetting paradigm. Across six experiments, the perceptual quality of study words was manipulated by varying: (1) the duration of study word presentation (Experiments 14); (2) the contrast of the displayed word against its visual background (Experiment 5); or (3) the amount of visual background noise on which the word was presented (Experiment 6). In Experiments 46, a lexical decision task corroborated the difficulty of study word processing. Despite evidence that relatively low visual contrast and relatively high visual background noise, in particular, create challenging conditions, we found no evidence that perceptual quality impacts the magnitude of the directed forgetting effect. This work suggests that data limitations have no discernible effect on forgetting and corroborate that only attentional resource limitations improve directed forgetting.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    Lavie’s experimental approach to demonstrate the attentional effects of perceptual load has come under scrutiny (e.g., Benoni & Tsal, 2010; Tsal & Benoni, 2010; Wilson, Muroi, & MacLeod, 2011). In a typical perceptual load manipulation (e.g., Lavie & de Fockert, 2003; Lavie, 2005), a target letter is presented amongst perceptually similar (and varied) neutral distractors. Perceptual load is manipulated by varying the set size of the search array (i.e., greater perceptual load implies more distractor items in the search array). A larger (and quite salient) distractor is presented just next to the search array and is either the same (congruent) or different (incongruent) letter as the target. The congruency difference measures interference. Interference is often smaller as perceptual load increases. Proponents of the dilution account suggest that the reduction of interference from the larger (salient) distractor letter is not due to perceptual load per se, but rather due to the dilution of the interference effect from the salient distractor by the neutral distractors in the search array. Adding to the issue, others (e.g., Gaspelin, Ruthruff, & Jung, 2014) have argued that some of the effects attributed to load or dilution may be due to the improper allocation of attention to the salient distractor (attentional “slippage”). Load theory, dilution, and “slippage” accounts are laden with processing assumptions that ought not to be disregarded (see, e.g., Cave & Chen, 2016; Murphy, Groeger, & Greene, 2016). These methodological considerations are important and ultimately will propel the field toward a better understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of attention. Although this is an important debate, it is outside the scope of the current paper as it is difficult to imagine how some of the nuances explicitly apply to directed forgetting. Accordingly, we will focus on the theoretical aspects of load theory rather than the empirical foundations.

  2. 2.

    A similar finding was reported by Woodward, Bjork, and Jongeward (1973), but is more difficult to interpret because recognition performance was conditionalized on prior recall of each TBR and TBF word.

  3. 3.

    While false alarm rates are sometimes used in an attempt to correct for guessing by subtracting them from the hit rates, there was a common foil false alarm rate across all levels of the independent variables; this is typical of a directed forgetting task. Because the calculation of a directed forgetting effect across conditions is unchanged by the subtraction of the same false alarm rate from both TBR and TBF item recognition, we have elected to report "uncorrected" hit rates.

  4. 4.

    This could also account for why the magnitude of the item-method directed forgetting effect does not always vary with overall item memorability in a between-subjects manipulation of stimulus type (e.g., Basden & Basden, 1996) but does in a mixed-block within-subjects manipulation (Quinlan, Taylor, & Fawcett, 2010).

  5. 5.

    Prior to conducting Experiment 6, two undergraduate projects used similar methods but with different numbers of backgrounds and/or study trial timings. A project conducted by Noha Mohamed used only two levels of background noise, both of which had the appearance of a patterned background: A high-noise background was sampled from a 96% range around midpoint (R = 0.02-0.98, M = 0.50) and a low-noise background was sampled from an 8% range centred on the mid-point (R = 0.46-0.54, M = 0.50). A total of 160 study trials presented the fixation stimulus for 1,000 ms; the study word superimposed on noise background for 500 ms; a blank interval for 800 ms; the TBR or TBF instruction for 500 ms; and a blank interval for 700 ms, for a total trial duration of 3,500 ms. There were a total of 320 recognition trials comprised of the 160 study words and 160 unstudied foil words. The initial sample size was 34 participants. One datafile was corrupt and could not be analyzed and one dataset was excluded due to a high false alarm rate. Recognition hit rates for the remaining 32 participants showed very strong evidence for an effect of memory instruction, consistent with a directed forgetting effect, F(1,31) = 102.60, MSe = 119.33, p < .01, ges = .27, pH1 > .99; weak evidence against an effect of task difficulty, F(1,31) = 3.27, MSe = 60.98, p = .08, ges < .01, pH0 = .53; and positive evidence against an interaction of memory instruction and task difficulty, F < 1, MSe = 28.84, p = .46, ges < .01, pH0 = .81. With the high-noise and low-noise backgrounds, respectively, the TBR item hit rate was 59% and 60% and the TBF hit rate was 38% and 41%.

    The second undergraduate project conducted by Jessie Pappin used the same methods described for Experiment 6 except that the memory instruction was presented for 300 ms (instead of 400 ms); total trial duration was 5,700 ms (instead of 5,000 ms); and, there were 33 lexical decision trials (instead of 60), 162 study trials (instead of 144), and 324 test trials (instead of 288). She collected data from 48 participants. Data from two participants were removed due to low lexical decision accuracies and data from another three were removed due to high false alarm rates. The results were very similar to those of Experiment 6. The lexical decision RTs provided strong evidence for task difficulty, F(2,84) = 8.86, MSe = 1209.75, p < .01, ges = .02, pH1 = .98, with positive evidence for slower RTs in the Difficult condition (M = 636 ms) compared to the Moderate condition (M = 619 ms), F(1,42) = 9.09, MSe = 651.47, p < .01, ges = .01, pH1 = .91, but weak evidence against a difference in the speed of responding in the Moderate condition compared to the Easy (M = 604 ms) condition, F(1,42) = 3.05, MSe = 1577.16, p = .09, ges = .01, pH0 = 0.59. There was positive evidence against an overall effect of task difficulty on lexical decision accuracy, F(2,84) = 3.38, MSe = 91.05, p = .04, ges = .03, pH0 = .76: The accuracies were 86% in the Difficult condition, 90% in the Moderate condition, and 91% in the Easy condition. Recognition hit rates showed very strong evidence for an effect of memory instruction, consistent with a directed forgetting effect, F(1,42) = 182.43, MSe = 314.30, p < .01, ges = .48, pH1 > .99; positive evidence against an effect of task difficulty, F(2,84) = 2.56, MSe = 79.53, p = .08, ges = .01, pH0 = .87; and strong evidence against the critical interaction of memory instruction and task difficulty, F(2,84) = 1.09, MSe = 94.78, p = .34, ges < .01, pH0 = .97. Under the Difficult, Moderate, and Easy conditions, respectively, the TBR item hit rate was 72%, 72%, and 73%, and the TBF item hit rate was 39%, 44%, and 44%.

  6. 6.

    This might be the most important difference between response competition and directed forgetting tasks. Perceptual load effects are only generally observed when there is an array of stimuli. It fits with dilution explanations of perceptual load such that dilution only occurs with a stimulus array. We thank Colin MacLeod, one of our reviewers, for highlighting this issue.

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Author Note

Authorship order is arbitrary; equal contributions were made by both authors. Thanks to Dr. Jonathan Fawcett for providing the custom software used to randomise and distribute the word stimuli to different lists; Laura Cutmore and Colin McCormick for collecting data; Dr. Charles Collin for providing code to create the visual noise images used in Experiment 6; to students Noha Mohamed and Jessie Pappin for collecting data in earlier versions of Experiment 6; and, to participants for volunteering their time and effort to contribute data toward this project. Project funding was provided by an NSERC Discovery Grant awarded to TLT.

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Correspondence to Tracy L. Taylor.

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The data and word lists for all experiments are available from the first author upon request.

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Taylor, T.L., Ivanoff, J. Forgetting under difficult conditions: Item-method directed forgetting under perceptual processing constraints. Mem Cogn (2021). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-021-01149-2

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Keywords

  • Item-method directed forgetting
  • Intentional forgetting
  • Data-processing limitations
  • Cognitive load