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Intending to Remember Information: The Effectiveness and Speed of Attentional Allocation. Richard A. Block Montana State University. Introduction: Two Questions. Is intentionality—intending to remember information—effective or even necessary for remembering?.
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Richard A. BlockMontana State University
Is intentionality—intending to remember information—effective or even necessary for remembering?
If intentionality improves memory, how quickly can attentional resources be allocated to enhance remembering?
Issues concerning intentionality and memory were studied as early as the late 1800s.
In 1913, Meumann asserted:
“If we have the will to imprint the observed data upon memory in order that we might subsequently be able to reproduce them, we actually retain them more readily; and when the will to remember is lacking, the incorporation into memory fails to take place, or if it does occur, it is a matter of sheer accident.”
However, Shellow (1923) studied incidental memory, and she said that:
“Incidental memory is only ‘capricious’ when we do not know its determining factors, but once these are analyzed . . . we find incidental memory as logical and as inevitable as the better accredited form of direct [intentional] memory.”
Three decades later, Postman and Phillips (1954) said:
“The fact that [subjects] will learn even when they are not explicitly instructed to do so has been repeatedly demonstrated.”
Postman (1964) even asserted that:
“Intent per se is not a significant variable in learning.”
This view was supported in the mid-1970s with the introduction of the levels-of-processing framework, in which memory performance depended on the “depth” of an orienting task but not much on intentionality (i.e., whether or not subjects were instructed to remember the presented information).
The research that is most often cited was conducted by Hyde and Jenkins (1973), who used several kinds of orienting tasks as well as incidental- versus intentional-memory conditions.
Hyde and Jenkins found a large effect of orienting task on word recall, and a small but significanteffect of intentionality.
However, a few psychologists apparently did not read Hyde and Jenkins carefully. One, who should remain nameless, said that: “The Hyde and Jenkins (1973) study shows that intention to learn has no effect at all”
Research on intentionality and memory have been limited in two main ways:
The concept of intentionality is closely related to that of automaticity (automatic vs. controlled processes):
Several criteria must be met to conclude that a process is automatic. These include:
We began by investigating effects of intentionality on recognition memory for human faces. This provides a relatively strong test of effects of intentionality because many of the component processes in face encoding are thought to occur automatically.
Only so-called internal features (eyes, nose, mouth) may be encoded automatically; external features (facial hair, eyeglasses, jewelry) may need to be encoded with controlled processes.
Experiment 1 investigated whether or not encoding and remembering of an external feature of faces—eyeglasses—is automatic or controlled.
We presented a series of computer-generated faces, each either with or without eyeglasses. Here are some examples:
All subjects were told that they would later be asked to recognize each of the presented faces.
Half the subjects were told to try to remember whether each face had eyeglasses (intentional condition), and half were told nothing about eyeglasses (incidental condition).
Face recognition was not influenced by intent to remember eyeglasses (but, of course, all subjects were asked to remember the faces).
Memory for an external face feature (eyeglasses, given face recognition) was influenced by intentionality.
Encoding an external feature of faces involves controlled (effortful) processes because it was influenced by memory condition. Intending to encode eyeglasses improved memory for eyeglasses. Encoding such features may also involve some automatic processes, because performance was above chance in the incidental-memory condition.
Is remembering faces automatic? In order to minimize the likelihood that people in an incidental-memory condition may deliberately try to remember the faces, one of two methods must be used:
Experiment 2 investigated whether or not encoding faces per se is automatic or controlled.
We used a cover story: Subjects were told that we were studying how a person’s mood is affected by crowds of people and that we would show pictures of faces and later ask them to report their mood.
Half the subjects were told that memory for faces would be tested later.
The faces were the same as in Experiment 1 except that none of them had eyeglasses.
Face recognition was influenced by intentionality (to remember faces): Performance was better in the intentional than in the incidental condition.
Experiment 3 investigated the speed of controlled (intentional) encoding of faces.
We used a cover task: All subjects were told that they would see pictures of cars, chairs, human faces, and birds and that their task was to try to count the total number of cars they saw.
Only subjects in the intentional-memory condition were told that their memory for faces would also be tested later.
Here are some examples of the four types of pictures:
In a randomly ordered series, half the pictures of each type were presented for 1 s, and half were presented for 3 s.
Thanks to Shlomo Bentin for the pictures.
Face recognition was better in the intentional condition than in the incidental condition at both durations.
Experiment 4 investigated the speed of controlled (intentional) encoding of bird pictures.
We again used a cover task: Subjects were told that they would see pictures of cars, chairs, human faces, and birds and that their task was to try to count the total number of cars they saw.
Subjects in the intentional-memory condition were told that their memory for birds would also be tested later.
The materials and procedure were otherwise identical to the previous experiment.
Bird recognition was better in the intentional condition and at the longer duration, but there was no interaction.
Experiment 5 compared the speed of controlled (intentional) encoding of human faces, ape faces, and birds.
We again used a cover task: All subjects were told that they would see cars, birds, human faces, and ape faces and that their task was to try to count the total number of cars they saw.
Subjects in the intentional-memory condition were told that their memory for either human faces, ape faces, or birds would be tested later.
Subjects in the incidental-memory condition were not told that their memory for either human faces, ape faces, or birds would be tested later.
Here are some examples of the four types of pictures:
In a randomly ordered series, half the pictures of each type were presented for 0.5 s and half for 2.0 s. Note this reduction in stimulus duration from Experiment 4.
The intentionality effect was small (d=0.33) but significant at 0.5 s and medium (d=0.49) at 2.0 s. The interaction effect was not significant.
Intentionality improved bird recognition (although it was only significant at 2.0 s). The interaction effect was not significant.
Intentionality improved ape-face recognition at both 0.5 s and 2.0 s. The interaction effect was not significant.
Intentionality improved human-face recognition (although it was only significant at 2.0 s). Again, the interaction effect was not significant.
Rehearsal is not a likely explanation, because people apparently cannot rehearse pictures (e.g., Hintzman & Rogers, 1973).
How does intentionality work?
Depth of processing is also not a likely explanation. How can people deeply process a stimulus in about 500 ms, even if they know what deep processing entails?
Perhaps people can rapidly (within 500 ms) mobilize attentional resources. They may also be engaging in conservation of attentional resources over the relatively long (5-10 s) periods separating to-be-remembered stimuli.
Reeves and Sperling (1986) found evidence for a so-called attentional gate that can “open” within 400 ms, allowing effective short-term memory encoding of information.
In addition to providing much-needed evidence on intentionality, our findings support this notion.
Human face encoding is linked to the N170 component of the ERP (Gauthier & Curby, 2005), suggesting that automatic face encoding occurs quickly. Does intentionality have a subsequent effect (i.e., within the range from 170 to 500 ms)?
In contrast to pictures viewed under incidental conditions, those viewed under intentional-memory conditions produce ERP changes in the range of 250-450 ms (Noldy et al., 1990).
Our memory data support and extend these findings.
Human face encoding apparently relies on automatic processing, as reflected in N170 component of the ERP.
However, beginning at about 500 ms, intent to remember a face enhances subsequent memory, presumably as a result of a rapid allocation of attentional resources. This processing is not a result of automatic component processes, but is a result of controlled component processes.
Similar effects are seen for other pictorial stimuli (ape faces and birds), although they may lack the automatic, early (N170) component.
Intentional encoding of pictorial information enhances subsequent recognition memory, even at short (500 ms) stimulus durations.
Manipulating intentionality reveals whether or not some component stimulus-encoding processes are controlled.
Previous conclusions about intentionality and memory, based mainly on verbal materials presented for longer durations, should be viewed with caution.
Attentional resources may be rapidly mobilized in order to enhance subsequent remembering of information.
At Tel-Aviv University, my colleague—
I thank many researchers who assisted me.
At Montana State University, student researchers—
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