Interfering with free recall of words: Detrimental effects of phonological competition

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Abstract

We examined the effect of different distracting tasks, performed concurrently during memory retrieval, on recall of a list of words. By manipulating the type of material and processing (semantic, orthographic, and phonological) required in the distracting task, and comparing the magnitude of memory interference produced, we aimed to infer the kind of representation upon which retrieval of words depends. In Experiment 1, identifying odd digits concurrently during free recall disrupted memory, relative to a full attention condition, when the numbers were presented orthographically (e.g. nineteen), but not numerically (e.g. 19). In Experiment 2, a distracting task that required phonological-based decisions to either word or picture material produced large, but equivalent effects on recall of words. In Experiment 3, phonological-based decisions to pictures in a distracting task disrupted recall more than when the same pictures required semantically-based size estimations. In Experiment 4, a distracting task that required syllable decisions to line drawings interfered significantly with recall, while an equally difficult semantically-based color-decision task about the same line drawings, did not. Together, these experiments demonstrate that the degree of memory interference experienced during recall of words depends primarily on whether the distracting task competes for phonological representations or processes, and less on competition for semantic or orthographic or material-specific representations or processes.

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