Method Matters: Systematic Effects of Testing Procedure on Visual Working Memory Sensitivity

Tal Makovski, Leah M. Watson, Wilma Koutstaal, Yuhong V. Jiang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Visual working memory (WM) is traditionally considered a robust form of visual representation that survives changes in object motion, observer's position, and other visual transients. This article presents data that are inconsistent with the traditional view. We show that memory sensitivity is dramatically influenced by small variations in the testing procedure, supporting the idea that representations in visual WM are susceptible to interference from testing. In the study, participants were shown an array of colors to remember. After a short retention interval, memory for one of the items was tested with either a same-different task or a 2-alternative-forced-choice (2AFC) task. Memory sensitivity was much lower in the 2AFC task than in the same-different task. This difference was found regardless of encoding similarity or of whether visual WM required a fine or coarse memory resolution. The 2AFC disadvantage was reduced when participants were informed shortly before testing which item would be probed. The 2AFC disadvantage diminished in perceptual tasks and was not found in tasks probing visual long-term memory. These results support memory models that acknowledge the labile nature of visual WM and have implications for the format of visual WM and its assessment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1466-1479
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • 2-alternative-forced choice
  • Change detection
  • Same-different
  • Visual long-term memory
  • Visual working memory


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