Is the Phonological Similarity Effect in Working Memory Due to Proactive Interference?

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Immediate serial recall of verbal material is highly sensitive to impairment attributable to phonological similarity. Although this has traditionally been interpreted as a within-sequence similarity effect, Engle (2007) proposed an interpretation based on interference from prior sequences, a phenomenon analogous to that found in the Peterson short-term memory (STM) task. We use the method of serial reconstruction to test this in an experiment contrasting the standard paradigm in which successive sequences are drawn from the same set of phonologically similar or dissimilar words and one in which the vowel sound on which similarity is based is switched from trial to trial, a manipulation analogous to that producing release from PI in the Peterson task. A substantial similarity effect occurs under both conditions although there is a small advantage from switching across similar sequences. There is, however, no evidence for the suggestion that the similarity effect will be absent from the very first sequence tested. Our results support the within-sequence similarity rather than a between-list PI interpretation. Reasons for the contrast with the classic Peterson short-term forgetting task are briefly discussed.

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