Object Selection Costs in Visual Working Memory: A Diffusion Model Analysis of the Focus of Attention

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A central question in working memory research concerns the degree to which information in working memory is accessible to other cognitive processes (e.g., decision-making). Theories assuming that the focus of attention can only store a single object at a time require the focus to orient to a target representation before further processing can occur. The need to orient the focus of attention implies that single-object accounts typically predict response time costs associated with object selection even when working memory is not full (i.e., memory load is less than 4 items). For other theories that assume storage of multiple items in the focus of attention, predictions depend on specific assumptions about the way resources are allocated among items held in the focus, and how this affects the time course of retrieval of items from the focus. These broad theoretical accounts have been difficult to distinguish because conventional analyses fail to separate components of empirical response times related to decision-making from components related to selection and retrieval processes associated with accessing information in working memory. To better distinguish these response time components from one another, we analyze data from a probed visual working memory task using extensions of the diffusion decision model. Analysis of model parameters revealed that increases in memory load resulted in (a) reductions in the quality of the underlying stimulus representations in a manner consistent with a sample size model of visual working memory capacity and (b) systematic increases in the time needed to selectively access a probed representation in memory. The results are consistent with single-object theories of the focus of attention. The results are also consistent with a subset of theories that assume a multiobject focus of attention in which resource allocation diminishes both the quality and accessibility of the underlying representations.

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