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Research project

Dr Phil Higham ESRC Misattributions & Recognition Memory

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Project overview

A great deal of research, such as that on the revelation effect (e.g., Hockley & Niewiadomski, 2001), has examined the effect of some preceding task on recognition memory judgements. For example, participants in Higham and Vokey (2000) first studied a long list of words and later were administered a recognition memory test that contained a mixture of old (words presented on the list) and new (novel distractor) items. However, prior to the presentation of each old or new test item (target) for a recognition judgement, the same item (prime) was presented very briefly and then backward masked. Participants were asked first to try to identify the prime and then to make an old/new recognition response to the target subsequently presented in the clear. Higham and Vokey found that both old and new targets following identified primes were more likely to be rated old than were targets following misidentified primes. To explain these results, they suggested that participants used an identification heuristic, reasoning something like "given that the item was difficult to see and I was able to identify it, I must have seen it recently in the study list, so I will call it old."

Dougal and Schooler (in press) have also investigated the effect of a preceding task on recognition responses. As in Higham and Vokey (2000), their participants first studied a list of words and then were given a recognition test. However, prior to making the recognition response, participants attempted to solve anagram versions of each test item. Across a series of experiments, solving anagrams enhanced the likelihood of calling an item old compared to trials for which the solution was provided by the experimenter.

One potential account of both Higham and Vokey’s (2000) and Dougal and Schooler’s (in press) results is the diagnosticity hypothesis forwarded by Higham and Vokey (2000). By this account, participants reasoned that successfully solving hard-to-solve anagrams, just as with successful identification of hard-to-identify words, was diagnostic of the item having been presented earlier, which resulted in more old responses. Conversely, Dougal and Schooler favoured the discovery misattribution hypothesis. By this account, participants confused the subjective experience of discovering a solution with the subjective experience of recollection. Schooler and colleagues argued that in both the case of discovery (i.e., sudden achievement of a solution) and the case of recollection, a particular idea comes to mind with a compelling sense of veracity, which can result in participants confusing the two experiences to some degree.

The research outlined in this proposal was aimed at distinguishing between these two hypotheses. In particular, four experiments were proposed that would (1) determine the effect of variables that limit recollection on misattributions, (2) determine the effect of feedback regarding identification performance, (3) determine the effect of an interpolated task between identification or solving and the subsequent recognition response, and (4) determine the effect of instructions to discount performance on the preceding task on the tendency to make misattributions during recognition. Experiments were conducted that pertain to “1” and “2”, and “4” above. Since writing the proposal, it came to light that Schooler has already conducted an experiment analogous to “3” above, so the research plan was amended. In place of “3,” we focused on another experimental series that attempted to distinguish between the two outlined hypotheses. These experiments draw on ideas presented in Westerman, Miller, and Lloyd (2003). In particular, the match in modality between study and test was manipulated. In one condition, items were seen at both study and test, but in another condition, items were heard at study, but seen at test. Westerman et al. showed (using the Jacoby-Whitehouse paradigm) that when there was a modality mismatch, participants no longer made misattributions because fluency was no longer diagnostic of prior presentation. Applying this idea to the identification paradigm, if the diagnosticity hypothesis is correct, modality mismatch between study and test should also limit misattributions. We tested this idea further, conducting various versions of modality match/mismatch experiments with pure-modality and mixed-modality study lists.

Unfortunately, the results from “2” and “4” were inconclusive. However, the data from the experiments that limit recollection (“1” above) have been particularly promising and preliminary results were presented at the EPS meeting in Plymouth in July 2006 and at “ICOM-4” in Sydney, Australia, July 2006. This preliminary work was replicated and extended in the autumn 2006 and in 2007. These new results were presented at a symposium of the BPS-Cognitive Section conference in August, 2007. A manuscript has also been prepared and will be submitted for publication shortly. This manuscript is one of our “Nominated Outputs”. The experiments applying the Westerman et al. (2003) reasoning to the identification paradigm were also promising but the data were not conclusive enough to warrant publication by the time the grant terminated. However, Dr Arnold (the Research Fellow on the grant, who is now a lecturer at the University of St Andrews) and I have agreed to conduct some follow-up research based on these ideas. We anticipate that further publications and conference presentations will result from this continued collaboration, and because the initial experimentation began during the term of this ESRC grant, the grant will acknowledged in those outputs.


Lead researcher

Professor Philip Higham

Professor of Experimental Psychology

Research interests

  • Enhancing student learning in educational settings
  • Protecting social media users from fake news

Connect with Philip

Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

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