The Development of Automaticity in Short-Term Memory Search: Item-Response Learning and Category Learning

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In short-term-memory (STM)-search tasks, observers judge whether a test probe was present in a short list of study items. Here we investigated the long-term learning mechanisms that lead to the highly efficient STM-search performance observed under conditions of consistent-mapping (CM) training, in which targets and foils never switch roles across trials. In item-response learning, subjects learn long-term mappings between individual items and target versus foil responses. In category learning, subjects learn high-level codes corresponding to separate sets of items and learn to attach old versus new responses to these category codes. To distinguish between these 2 forms of learning, we tested subjects in categorized varied mapping (CV) conditions: There were 2 distinct categories of items, but the assignment of categories to target versus foil responses varied across trials. In cases involving arbitrary categories, CV performance closely resembled standard varied-mapping performance without categories and departed dramatically from CM performance, supporting the item-response-learning hypothesis. In cases involving prelearned categories, CV performance resembled CM performance, as long as there was sufficient practice or steps taken to reduce trial-to-trial category-switching costs. This pattern of results supports the category-coding hypothesis for sufficiently well-learned categories. Thus, item-response learning occurs rapidly and is used early in CM training; category learning is much slower but is eventually adopted and is used to increase the efficiency of search beyond that available from item-response learning.

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