Dealing With Prospective Memory Demands While Performing an Ongoing Task: Shared Processing, Increased On-Task Focus, or Both?

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Abstract

Prospective memory (PM) is the cognitive ability to remember to fulfill intended action plans at the appropriate future moment. Current theories assume that PM fulfillment draws on attentional processes. Accordingly, pending PM intentions interfere with other ongoing tasks to the extent to which both tasks rely on the same processes. How do people manage the competition between PM and ongoing-task demands? Based on research relating mind wandering and attentional control (Kane & McVay, 2012), we argue that people may not only change the way they process ongoing-task stimuli when given a PM intention, but they may also engage in less off-task thinking than they otherwise would. That is, people focus more strongly on the tasks at hand and dedicate considerable conscious thought to the PM goal. We tested this hypothesis by asking subjects to periodically report on their thoughts during prototypical PM (and control) tasks. Task-unrelated thought rates dropped when participants performed an ongoing task while holding a PM intention versus performing the ongoing task alone (Experiment 1), even when PM demands were minimized (Experiment 2) and more so when PM execution was especially rewarded (Experiment 3). Our findings suggest that PM demands not only elicit a cost to ongoing-task processing, but they also induce a stronger on-task focus and promote conscious thoughts about the PM intention.

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