Memory is More SelectiveImagine checking the time. A moment later, someone asks you what time it is. Do you remember? Unless you were specifically trying to remember the time, you probably did not. Research from Penn State University calls this type of instant-forgetting attribute amnesia. Attribute amnesia is when an individual uses a piece of information to perform a task, but is unable to recall specifically what that information was as little as one second later. The findings of the study indicate that memory may be much more selective than previously thought.

The researchers conducted a memory test with 100 undergraduate students who were divided into groups. Each group participated in a variation of the same test. The tests asked the students to focus on letters, numbers, or colors as they viewed a group of four items on a screen. In the test, four items appeared on the screen for a period of time. Afterwards, the characters disappeared and the students were asked to recall the location of one of the characters. For example, a test might display three numbers and one letter. The students would be asked about the letter’s position. On this type of test, the students made few errors.

After several rounds of the test, the researchers introduced a new question. After the four characters disappeared, four letters appeared on screen. The students were asked which of the letters had been on the previous screen. The students answered this question correctly only 25 percent of the time. This is the same result the researchers would expect from guessing.

The researchers observed similar results in the task for other types of information, like odd and even numbers or colors. Notably, the information that the researchers asked about in the unexpected question was relevant just a moment before, not an extraneous piece of information.

When the researchers asked the unexpected question again in subsequent tests, it was no longer a surprise. The students got the question right between 65 and 95 percent of the time across different experiments.

Study co-author Brad Wyble, assistant professor of psychology, states that “This result is surprising because traditional theories of attention assume that when a specific piece of information is attended, that information is also stored in memory and therefore participants should have done better on the surprise memory test.”

This research is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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