Retention-error patterns in complex alphanumeric serial-recall tasks
We propose a new method based on an algorithm usually dedicated to DNA sequence alignment in order to both reliably score short-term memory performance on immediate serial-recall tasks and analyse retention-error patterns. There can be considerable confusion on how performance on immediate serial list recall tasks is scored, especially when the to-be-remembered items are sampled with replacement. We discuss the utility of sequence-alignment algorithms to compare the stimuli to the participants' responses. The idea is that deletion, substitution, translocation, and insertion errors, which are typical in DNA, are also typical putative errors in short-term memory (respectively omission, confusion, permutation, and intrusion errors). We analyse four data sets in which alphanumeric lists included a few (or many) repetitions. After examining the method on two simple data sets, we show that sequence alignment offers 1) a compelling method for measuring capacity in terms of chunks when many regularities are introduced in the material (third data set) and 2) a reliable estimator of individual differences in short-term memory capacity. This study illustrates the difficulty of arriving at a good measure of short-term memory performance, and also attempts to characterise the primary factors underpinning remembering and forgetting.
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