Not All Order Memory Is Equal: Test Demands Reveal Dissociations in Memory for Sequence Information

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Abstract

Remembering the order of a sequence of events is a fundamental feature of episodic memory. Indeed, a number of formal models represent temporal context as part of the memory system, and memory for order has been researched extensively. Yet, the nature of the code(s) underlying sequence memory is still relatively unknown. Across 4 experiments that manipulated encoding task, we found evidence for 3 dissociable facets of order memory. Experiment 1 introduced a test requiring a judgment of which of 2 alternatives had immediately followed a word during encoding. This measure revealed better retention of interitem associations following relational encoding (silent reading) than relatively item-specific encoding (judging referent size), a pattern consistent with that observed in previous research using order reconstruction tests. In sharp contrast, Experiment 2 demonstrated the reverse pattern: Memory for the studied order of 2 sequentially presented items was actually better following item-specific encoding than following relational encoding. Experiment 3 reproduced this dissociation in a single experiment using both tests. Experiment 4 extended these findings by further dissociating the roles of relational encoding and item strength in the 2 tests. Taken together, these results indicate that memory for event sequence is influenced by (a) interitem associations, (b) the emphasized directionality of an association, and (c) an item’s strength independent of other items. Memory for order is more complicated than has been portrayed in theories of memory and its nuances should be carefully considered when designing tests and models of temporal and relational memory.

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