The Role Of Context In Retrospective Memory

Context has been defined in sundry ways, but all manner of classifications basically arrive at a similar distinction. For example, Wickens (1987) distinguished between what he called context alpha and context beta. Context alpha effects refer to manipulations of context that are external to the stimulus or event itself. Such effects are generally labeled environmental context effects (see S. M. Smith & Vela, 2001). The citation classic in this regard is Godden and Baddeley's (1975) extreme manipulation of having university diving club members learn a list of words on land or 20 feet under water. When crossed with whether the test took place on land or under water, there were two conditions each where the environment at learning and test matched or mismatched. Recall was better when they matched. Of course, this basic finding on retrospective memory has been replicated a number of different times in a myriad of ways with variables as diverse as sound, odor, and posture. By contrast, context beta is defined as when the stimulus or event combines with another stimulus or event that somehow changes its semantic or contextual meaning. The citation classic in this case is Light and Carter-Sobell's (1970) demonstration that homographs (grade) learned under one sense (steep grade) will not be remembered as well if tested under another sense (good grade). Unfortunately, both kinds of effects are labeled context-dependent memory effects although their operative underlying principles are actually very different.

Similar retrospective memory effects are found with state-dependent manipulations. For example, manipulating inebriation (or not) at study and test will lead to the same sort of interactions as described for manipulations of context alpha (e.g., Eich, 1989). Other drugs such as nicotine, caffeine, and marijuana produce the same result, as do ambient temperatures, body position, odors, music, and states of pain. Another variant on state-dependency context effects is mood-dependent effects, which are not exactly the same thing as mood-congruency effects. In the former, placing people in slightly positive or negative mood states at both study and test produces the same crossover interactions (i.e., memory is better in the match conditions than in the mismatch conditions). By contrast, in the latter, mood congruency is when a person's current mood cues him or her either to learn or to remember information that is consistent with that mood (e.g., Hertel, 1992). For example, if after learning a list of positive, negative, and neutral words, people are placed in a slightly positive mood, they will recall more positive than negative words (and the opposite occurs if placed in a sad mood; Teasdale & Russell, 1983). As another example, Bower (1981) placed participants in either a happy or sad mood and had them learn a story about two characters, one of whom was happy and the other of whom was sad. People learned more about the protagonist that was related to their current learning state. Not all theorists agree on the underlying mechanisms involved with mood-dependent and mood-congruency retrieval. Nevertheless, to our mind, mood-dependent retrieval is caused by the current mood state adding unique retrieval cues that otherwise would not have been present if one was in a different mood. Therefore, mood-dependent retrieval, in our mind, is a time-of-retrieval effect. By contrast, mood-congruency effects are better described as a time-of-encoding effect. Material that better matches one's concurrent mood is related to one's current state of mind and one's self, and thus, the context interacts with the material to produce superior learning. As the reader will see later, we take a page from this difference in theoretical explanations and later argue that contextual effects on prospective memory can arise either from context information at intention formation or intention retrieval.

Another sort of consistent context effect on retrospective memory is transfer-appropriate processing. The idea here is that the cognitive processing that was used at encoding will yield better memory if it is recapitulated at test. The classic citation for this effect has participants learning words under what could be construed as a levels of processing judgment (Morris, Bransford, & Franks, 1977). Participants generated some words to fit into a sentence frame, and others as a rhyme to particular words. Two types of tests were administered, a standard recognition test and a rhyme recognition test. The latter test had participants mark items that rhymed with the studied words. Consistent with the preceding summary, items studied in the rhyme context were better recognized on the rhyme test than the standard test (and the reverse was also true). In other words, cognitive processing on an item that is recapitulated at test will lead to better memory than if the item receives a different sort of processing at test. With these issues now refreshed in the reader's mind, we would like to argue that event-based and time-based prospective memory should be sensitive to the same sort of context effects that are found in retrospective memory. We begin by revisiting published prospective memory work that demonstrates that some of these same principles affect intention completion.

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