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How do subvocal rehearsal and general attentional resources contribute to verbal short-term memory span?

  • Morra, Sergio
Published Article
Frontiers in Psychology
Frontiers Media SA
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2015
DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00145
PMID: 25798114


Whether rehearsal has a causal role in verbal STM has been controversial in the literature. Recent theories of working memory emphasize a role of attentional resources, but leave unclear how they contribute to verbal STM. Two experiments (with 49 and 102 adult participants, respectively) followed up previous studies with children, aiming to clarify the contributions of attentional capacity and rehearsal to verbal STM. Word length and presentation modality were manipulated. Experiment 1 focused on order errors, Experiment 2 on predicting individual differences in span from attentional capacity and articulation rate. Structural equation modeling showed clearly a major role of attentional capacity as a predictor of verbal STM span; but was inconclusive on whether rehearsal efficiency is an additional cause or a consequence of verbal STM. The effects of word length and modality on STM were replicated; a significant interaction was also found, showing a larger modality effect for long than short words, which replicates a previous finding on children. Item errors occurred more often with long words and correlated negatively with articulation rate. This set of findings seems to point to a role of rehearsal in maintaining item information. The probability of order errors per position increased linearly with list length. A revised version of a neo-Piagetian model was fit to the data of Experiment 2. That model was based on two parameters: attentional capacity (independently measured) and a free parameter representing loss of partly-activated information. The model could partly account for the results, but underestimated STM performance of the participants with smaller attentional capacity. It is concluded that modeling of verbal STM should consider individual and developmental differences in attentional capacity, rehearsal rate, and (perhaps) order representation.

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