Two Mechanisms of Constructive Recollection: Perceptual Recombination and Conceptual Fluency

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Recollection is constructive and prone to distortion, but the mechanisms through which recollections can become embellished with rich yet illusory details are still debated. According to the conceptual fluency hypothesis, abstract semantic or conceptual activation increases the familiarity of a nonstudied event, causing one to falsely attribute imagined features to actual perception. In contrast, according to the perceptual recombination hypothesis, details from actually perceived events are partially recollected and become erroneously bound to a nonstudied event, again causing a detailed yet false recollection. Here, we report the first experiments aimed at disentangling these 2 mechanisms. Participants imagined pictures of common objects, and then they saw an actual picture of some of the imagined objects. We next presented misinformation associated with these studied items, designed to increase conceptual fluency (i.e., semantically related words) or perceptual recombination (i.e., perceptually similar picture fragments). Finally, we tested recollection for the originally seen pictures using verbal labels as retrieval cues. Consistent with conceptual fluency, processing-related words increased false recollection of pictures that were never seen, and consistent with perceptual recombination, processing picture fragments further increased false recollection. We also found that conceptual fluency was more short-lived than perceptual recombination, further dissociating these 2 mechanisms. These experiments provide strong evidence that conceptual fluency and perceptual recombination independently contribute to the constructive aspects of recollection.

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