Erasing and Blurring Memories: The Differential Impact of Interference on Separate Aspects of Forgetting

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Interference disrupts information processing across many timescales, from immediate perception to memory over short and long durations. The widely held similarity assumption states that as similarity between interfering information and memory contents increases, so too does the degree of impairment. However, information is lost from memory in different ways. For instance, studied content might be erased in an all-or-nothing manner. Alternatively, information may be retained but the precision might be degraded or blurred. Here, we asked whether the similarity of interfering information to memory contents might differentially impact these 2 aspects of forgetting. Observers studied colored images of real-world objects, each followed by a stream of interfering objects. Across 4 experiments, we manipulated the similarity between the studied object and the interfering objects in circular color space. After interference, memory for object color was tested continuously on a color wheel, which in combination with mixture modeling, allowed for estimation of how erasing and blurring differentially contribute to forgetting. In contrast to the similarity assumption, we show that highly dissimilar interfering items caused the greatest increase in random guess responses, suggesting a greater frequency of memory erasure (Experiments 1–3). Moreover, we found that observers were generally able to resist interference from highly similar items, perhaps through surround suppression (Experiments 1 and 4). Finally, we report that interference from items of intermediate similarity tended to blur or decrease memory precision (Experiments 3 and 4). These results reveal that the nature of visual similarity can differentially alter how information is lost from memory.

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