Recognition Errors

In an article titled "Attributes of Memory" (1969) the influential verbal learning researcher Benton Underwood summarized evidence that false recognition errors take place when words have similar attributes. Even opposites can be falsely mistaken for each other. If you see the word UP on an acquisition test, you might falsely recognize the word DOWN on a recognition test the next day. Both are directions, and both involve the vertical dimension, so they have many features in common despite being opposites.

How did Underwood explain recognition errors?

Underwood tested other relationships that might provoke false recognition and obtained the results shown in the following table. It shows, for example, that people who saw the word "bottom" on a list would falsely recognize the word "top" about 32% of the time. Conceptual features (related to meaning) proved much more likely to produce recognition errors than perceptual features (related to appearance).

What sorts of relationships did Underwood discover to provoke false recognition?



Underwood's data showing which relationships produced recognition errors

Underwood summarized his conclusions as follows:

A memory is...a collection of attributes that serve to discriminate one memory from another and to act as retrieval mechanisms for a target memory....Encoding represents the process by which the attributes of a memory are established.

Why was Underwood's conversion to the encoding perspective considered important?

When Underwood wrote that in 1969, it was considered significant by other memory researchers. Underwood was a highly respected "old-timer" who had always accepted the idea that memory could be analyzed as sensory stimuli connecting to motor responses, an assumption going back to the days of Ebbinghaus when reflexes (stimulus-response circuits in the body) were well known, but information processing was an unknown concept. Now Underwood was joining the "encoding revolution." The old S-R (stimulus-response) theories inherited from an earlier era were being replaced. The new perspective focused on ways subjects interpreted, represented, and manipulated information.

How did changes in memory research foreshadow changes in other areas of experimental psychology?

Memory researchers were among the first psychologists to apply concepts like information processing from the world of computing to the realm of the human mind. Before long, the encoding revolution in memory research was followed by the cognitive revolution in all of experimental psychology. Other forms of mental activity, not just memory, would be interpreted as forms of information processing taking place in the brain.


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