Rewards memory aid during learning (but not later)

Source: iStock image by fotoSipSak licensed by Art Markman

Your ability to remember something involves three phases. There is a learning phase (which psychologists call coding) in which you encounter information. There is a retention interval in which processes like sleep can improve memory and other factors can cause you to forget some or all of what you have encountered. Finally, there is a recovery phase during which information (a signal) reaches memory and causes you to recall part of what you saw initially.

Many factors can influence the effectiveness of these three phases. For example, if you pay more attention to information while encoding, you’ll more easily remember what you’ve learned than pay less attention. When you collect information, you may say that you have seen something before if you feel it is familiar to you, or you might need to have a vivid memory of what you saw to say that you are. have actually seen.

Do the potential rewards influence the amount of memories you recall from the situations? If so, should you inquire about these rewards when you first encounter the information, or can you inquire about the rewards when you go to retrieve the information?

This question was explored in a 2022 article in the journal Cognition by Kevin da Silva Castanhiera, Azara Lalla, Katrina Ocampo, Signy Sheldon and my former graduate student Ross Otto.

They conducted two parallel studies in which people viewed sixteen brief videos of naturalistic scenes like people cleaning or talking on the phone. They watched the scenes twice. Then, after a brief 10 minute delay in which participants answered unrelated questions, they were given information about the scenes and asked if that information reflected something that was true of the scenes. They can be asked about the gist of the event (something about what people did), something perceptual on the stage (like the color of what someone was wearing), or something about the background. (like another individual or object in the scene that was not at the center of the action).

In one study, half of the scenes were identified as high-reward scenes, meaning that participants would get 25 cents for each question they answered correctly on the scene, and half were identified as high-reward scenes. low reward, meaning participants were told they were going to get 1 cent for each question they answered correctly. To make it easier to separate the low reward and high reward scenes, they were each presented as a group, so that participants see all the low reward scenes together and all the high reward scenes together. Participants were not called back to any of the awards when asked the recovery questions.

In this study, rewards had a significant impact on performance. Participants were significantly more accurate at remembering information about high reward scenes than low reward scenes. Some types of information were more difficult to retrieve than others, so participants were more specific about the gist of the event than specific perceptual details. But the benefit of high reward scenes was true for all types of news. The researchers also analyzed how quickly the participants made their judgments about the information they saw and found no systematic effect of the rewards, suggesting that the rewards did not influence the strategies used to retrieve the information. .

In the second study, participants studied the scenes without obtaining any information about the rewards. Then, participants engaged in a block of high-reward recovery trials and a block of low-reward recovery trials. Unlike the previous study, the rewards people experienced as they collected information had no impact on their performance. Again, however, the rewards had no impact on the strategies people used to retrieve information.

These results suggest that when participants discover rewards as they learn the information, they exert more effort and pay more attention to items that will get high rewards than to information that will get low rewards. But there is not much that people can do during recovery to improve their ability to remember.

This pattern of findings makes a lot of sense. It is helpful to be able to direct effort and attention to the information most likely to be useful later, although a certain amount of other information that is not known to be critical or of great value is also useful. stored. People can take their time to learn or study information. Retrieving information from memory is fairly automatic. Being able to quickly retrieve everything you know from the past is helpful, as the information you remember affects how you interpret new situations. The more strategic you can be about collecting information, the harder it can be to get the information you might need immediately to decide what to do.