How do people code information in working memory when items share features?

Plancher, G., & Goldstone, R. L. (2020).  How do people code information in working memory when items share features?  Experimental Psychology, 1-9.  https://doi.org/10.1027/1618-3169/a000480.

A large literature suggests that the way we process information is influenced by the categories that we have learned. We examined whether, when we try to uniquely encode items in workingmemory, the information encoded depends on the other stimuli being simultaneously learned. Participants were required to memorize unknown aliens, presented one at the time, for immediate recognition of their features. Some aliens, called twins, were organized into pairs that shared every feature (nondiscriminative feature) except one (discriminative feature), while some other aliens, called hermits, did not share feature. We reasoned that if people develop unsupervised categories by creating a category for a pair of aliens, we should observe better feature identification performance for nondiscriminative features compared to hermit features, but not compared to discriminative features. On the contrary, if distinguishing features draw attention, we should observe better performance when a discriminative rather than nondiscriminative feature was probed. Overall, our results suggest that when items share features, people code items in working memory by focusing on similarities between items, establishing clusters of items in an unsupervised fashion not requiring feedback on cluster membership.

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