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J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2012 Jul;38(4):1045-56. doi: 10.1037/a0027090. Epub 2012 Jan 30.

Can survival processing enhance story memory? Testing the generalizability of the adaptive memory framework.

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Department of Psychology, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT 06459, USA.


Research from the adaptive memory framework shows that thinking about words in terms of their survival value in an incidental learning task enhances their free recall relative to other semantic encoding strategies and intentional learning (Nairne, Pandeirada, & Thompson, 2008). We found similar results. When participants used incidental survival encoding for a list of words (e.g., "Will this object enhance my survival if I were stranded in the grasslands of a foreign land?"), they produced better free recall on a surprise test than did participants who intentionally tried to remember those words (Experiment 1). We also found this survival processing advantage when the words were presented within the context of a survival or neutral story (Experiment 2). However, this advantage did not extent to memory for a story's factual content, regardless of whether the participants were tested by cued recall (Experiment 3) or free recall (Experiments 4-5). Listening to a story for understanding under intentional or incidental learning conditions was just as good as survival processing for remembering story content. The functionalist approach to thinking about memory as an evolutionary adaptation designed to solve reproductive fitness problems provides a different theoretical framework for research, but it is not yet clear if survival processing has general applicability or is effective only for processing discrete stimuli in terms of fitness-relevant scenarios from our past.

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