Task Demands Determine Comparison Strategy in Whole Probe Change Detection

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Detecting a change in our visual world requires a process that compares the external environment (test display) with the contents of memory (study display). We addressed the question of whether people strategically adapt the comparison process in response to different decision loads. Study displays of 3 colored items were presented, followed by ‘whole-display’ probes containing 3 colored shapes. Participants were asked to decide whether any probed items contained a new feature. In Experiments 1–4, irrelevant changes to the probed item’s locations or feature bindings influenced memory performance, suggesting that participants employed a comparison process that relied on spatial locations. This finding occurred irrespective of whether participants were asked to decide about the whole display, or only a single cued item within the display. In Experiment 5, when the base-rate of changes in the nonprobed items increased (increasing the incentive to use the cue effectively), participants were not influenced by irrelevant changes in location or feature bindings. In addition, we observed individual differences in the use of spatial cues. These results suggest that participants can flexibly switch between spatial and nonspatial comparison strategies, depending on interactions between individual differences and task demand factors. These findings have implications for models of visual working memory that assume that the comparison between study and test obligatorily relies on accessing visual features via their binding to location.

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