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Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2014 Mar;14(1):78-89. doi: 10.3758/s13415-013-0231-1.

Cognitive control of familiarity: directed forgetting reduces proactive interference in working memory.

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Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI, 48109-1043, USA,


Proactive interference (PI) occurs when previously learned information interferes with new learning. In a working memory task, PI induces longer response times and more errors to recent negative probes than to new probes, presumably because the recent probe's familiarity invites a "yes" response. Warnings, longer intertrial intervals, and the increased contextual salience of the probes can reduce but not eliminate PI, suggesting that cognitive control over PI is limited. Here we tested whether control exerted in the form of intentional forgetting performed during working memory can reduce the magnitude of PI. In two experiments, participants performed a working memory task with directed-forgetting instructions and the occasional presentation of recent probes. Surprise long-term memory testing indicated better memory for to-be-remembered than for to-be-forgotten items, documenting the classic directed-forgetting effect. Critically, in working memory, PI was virtually eliminated for recent probes from prior to-be-forgotten lists, as compared to recent probes from prior to-be-remembered lists. Thus cognitive control, when executed via directed forgetting, can reduce the adverse and otherwise persistent interference from familiarity, an effect that we attribute to attenuated memory representations of the to-be-forgotten items.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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