Adaptive Memory: Is There a Reproduction-Processing Effect?

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Like all biological systems, human memory is likely to have been influenced by evolutionary processes, and its abilities have been subjected to selective mechanisms. Consequently, human memory should be primed to better remember information relevant to one’s evolutionary fitness. Supporting this view, participants asked to rate words based on their relevance to an imaginary survival situation better recall those words (even the words rated low in relevancy) than the same words rated with respect to non-survival situations. This mnemonic advantage is called the “survival-processing effect,” and presumably it was selected for because it contributed to evolutionary fitness. The same reasoning suggests that there should be an advantage for recall of information that has been rated for relevancy to reproduction and/or mate seeking, although little evidence has existed to assess this proposition. We used an experimental design similar to that in the original survival-processing effect study (Nairne, Thompson, & Pandeirada, 2007) and across 3 experiments tested several newly designed scenarios to determine whether a reproduction-processing effect could be found in an ancestral environment, a modern mating environment, and an ancestral environment in which the emphasis was on raising offspring as opposed to finding a mate. Our results replicated the survival-processing effect but provided no evidence of a reproduction-processing effect when the scenario emphasized finding a mate. However, when rating items on their relevancy to raising one’s offspring in an ancestral environment, a mnemonic advantage comparable to that of the survival-processing effect was found.

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