The Role of Stimulus Complexity and Salience in Memory for Face–Name Associations in Healthy Adults: Friend or Foe?

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The associative deficit hypothesis (ADH) posits that age-related differences in recognition of associations are disproportionately larger than age differences in item recognition because of age-related difficulty in binding and retrieval of two or more pieces of information in a memory episode. This proposition rests on the observation of disproportionately greater age differences in memory for associations than in recognition of individual items. Although ADH has been supported in experiments with verbal and nonverbal stimuli, the effects of task or stimulus characteristics on its generalizability remain unclear. In a series of experiments, we examined how salience and variability of face stimuli presented in face–name pairs affect age differences in recognition of items and associations. We found that a disproportionate age-related deficit in the recognition of face–name associations emerges when face stimuli are more complex, salient, variable, and distinctive, but not when standardized faces appear within minimal visual context. These findings indicate that age-related associative memory deficits may stem at least in part from age differences in use of stimulus characteristics for contextual support.

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