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J Exp Psychol Gen. 1980 Sep;109(3):251-78.

The modality effect and echoic persistence.


The modality effect refers to the higher level of recall of the last few items of a list when presentation is auditory as opposed to visual. It is usually attributed to echoic memory. The effect may be sharply reduced by an ostensibly irrelevant auditory item appended to the end of the list. Previous research suggests that this "suffix effect" arises only when the suffix item occurs within 2 sec of the last list item. This finding strengthens the widely held assumption that echoic information decays within 2 sec, and has led to the assumption that if echoic information is to be useful in serial recall it must first be encoded into a more durable modality-independent form. Both assumptions conflict with the research reported here. The first two experiments demonstrate substantial suffix effects with suffix delays of 2 and 4 sec, indicating that echoic information lasts at least 4 sec. This finding implies that echoic information may aid recall directly, an implication that was supported in Experiments 3 and 4. In Experiment 3 serial recall was interrupted with a brief distractor task. The modality effect was smaller when this task was auditory than when it was visual, suggesting that echoic information was still available immediately prior to recency recall. In Experiment 4 list presentation was broken by a 4-sec pause; the modalities of the list halves were combined factorially. Interest focused on the recency positions of the first half. A modality effect was found at these positions when the second half was visual but not when it was auditory. This is contrary to the hypothesis that echoic information is encoded before recall, but is consistent with the hypothesis that echoic information is encoded before recall, but is consistent with the alternative hypothesis that echoic information is used directly at recall. The final two experiments concern the modality effect found when a delay is interpolated between list presentation and recall. Experiment 5 showed that a 20-sec silent copying task interpolated before free recall reduced visual recency more than auditory recency, and so enhanced the modality effect. This suggests that, contrary to prevailing opinion, the modality effect in delayed recall is not the result of a memory that is modality-independent. In Experiment 6 a modality effect found with serial recall after an unfilled interval of 18 sec was unaffected by visual distractor task, but almost eliminated by an auditory distractor task, given just prior to recall. It thus seems that the modality effect in delayed recall is the result of information persisting in echoic form until recall. It is concluded that echoic information can persist for many seconds and is used directly at the time of recall.

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