Psychology Of Prospective Memory Research Paper

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Prospective memory refers to remembering to perform an action in the future such as remembering to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home, to give a friend a message, to send a birthday card to your aunt, to take your medication, and to pick someone up at airport at 4 p.m. Ellis (1996, p. 1) defines it somewhat more precisely as the ‘realization of delayed intentions and associated actions.’ Prospective memory can be contrasted with retrospective memory, which is memory for past events.

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Examples of retrospective memory include remembering the name of your eighth grade teacher, the causes of the World War I, the formula for the area of a circle, what you had for lunch yesterday, and a list of words learned in an experiment 15 minutes earlier. In thinking about the distinction between prospective and retrospective memory, it is worthwhile considering that many of the same processes may be involved in retrospective and prospective memory tasks. It is interesting to note that all prospective memories are to some extent retrospective in the sense that you have to have retrospective memory for the action that is to be performed and when it is to be performed in order to remember to perform it on time. For example, in order to remember to give a friend a message, you have to remember the message and to whom it is to be given. In addition, however, successful prospective memory requires that you actually remember to do this when you see your friend, and this is the prospective component of the memory. One fairly common error that is made in this situation is that upon seeing your friend, you remember that you have a message to give but forget the message (a retrospective memory problem). Another is that you forget to give the message even though you have good memory for it (a prospective memory failure).

1. Contrasts With Retrospective Memory

When studying retrospective memory (at least explicit forms of retrospective memory) in the laboratory, the experimenter presents some materials for learning. After a delay of some duration, the experimenter puts participants in a retrieval mode and asks them to recollect intentionally as they perform a designated criterial task such as free or cued recall. By contrast, when studying prospective memory, the experimenter asks participants to perform an action or several actions at a later point in time (either at a particular time or when a certain event occurs; see Sect. 2.2 for examples). The interest is in whether participants remember to perform the task at the appropriate time/event and without an external agent (e.g., the experimenter) prompting participants to remember at the critical period. A key difference then between retrospective and prospective memory is that while the process of remembering is initiated by the experimenter in retrospective memory, it is initiated by the participant in prospective memory.

This self-cueing feature of prospective memory, along with the fact that retrieval needs to occur sometime in the future, places a different and perhaps more complex combination of demands (than typical retrospective memory tasks) on our cognitive systems. Indeed, many researchers have argued that prospective memory involves much more than memory processes (Dobbs and Reeves 1996, Ellis 1996, Burgess and Shallice 1997, Marsh et al. 1998b). They make the case that plan creation, plan modification, monitoring or rehearsal of the conditions for performing the action, and output monitoring, as well as individual factors such as working memory resources and personality variables, are all essential to a complete understanding of prospective memory.

Despite the differences just mentioned, it is likely that prospective and retrospective memory share similar memory processes and, accordingly, our vast understanding in the retrospective memory arena will be useful for understanding prospective memory. For example, given that many prospective memory tasks involve realizing a connection between an event (seeing a friend) and an intended action (giving a message), our basic understanding of associative memory processes should prove useful in understanding prospective memory. Also, as in retrospective memory, it seems that the level of processing of the target event is critical for good prospective memory as is the overlap between processing of the target event at encoding and retrieval (McDaniel et al. 1998).

2. Research In Prospective Memory

2.1 Historical Overview

Nearly all memory research conducted thus far has focused on retrospective memory, and this seems inconsistent with the nature of our everyday memory demands. Our lives are replete with prospective memory demands such as fulfilling an appointment, giving a message, remembering to flip the pancakes at the appropriate time, and returning a library book. To get some sense of the prevalence of prospective memory in everyday life, for several years G. O. Einstein asked students in his classes to write down the last thing they remembered forgetting. Interestingly, 62 percent of college-age students and 54 percent of older students (60 years and older) listed responses that were prospective memory failures. Given its prevalence in everyday living, there is a real gap in our scientific understanding of prospective memory. It is difficult to overemphasize this gap as Kvavilashvili and Ellis (1996) in a recent review found only 45 prospective memory papers published over the prior 20 years, and only a small percentage of these papers consisted of rigorous experimental work in major journals.

2.2 Experimental Paradigms

Initial research in prospective memory required prospective memory responses to be initiated outside of the laboratory. For instance, subjects were asked to return postcards (e.g., Meacham and Singer 1977) or make telephone calls at specified times (Moscovitch 1982). Although these paradigms were valuable in producing the first investigations of factors thought to influence prospective remembering (like a person’s age), they did not allow control of extraneous factors that affect prospective remembering. For instance, in these experiments there may have been variation in the degree to which subjects used external aids such as calendars to help complete the prospective memory task.

Empirical and theoretical work in prospective memory has increased significantly with the introduction of laboratory paradigms that bring experimental control and precision to the study of prospective memory. One influential paradigm, developed by Einstein and McDaniel (1990), requires that the subject be busily engaged in a primary task that serves as a cover task for the prospective memory component. During the instructions for the primary task, subjects are also instructed that they are to remember on their own to perform another action (e.g., press a special function key on the keyboard) at some designated point after they begin the primary task.

Sometimes the designation is an event embedded in the primary task (e.g., a particular word, a particular type of question) and other times the designation is a period of time that has elapsed (e.g., after 5 minutes). In this paradigm, the retrospective memory demands are designed to be simple and well remembered so that the major focus is whether participants remember to perform the intended action at the appropriate point. Other paradigms that focus on planning involve having participants remember to perform multiple sets of activities, each with their own constraints (e.g., Kliegel et al. 2000).

2.3 Principal Findings And Theoretical Perspectives

The general theoretical orientation guiding prospective memory research has turned on potential differences between prospective memory processes and retrospective memory processes. Unique features of prospective memory seem possible at encoding, storage, and retrieval stages of memory.

Encoding refers to rehearsal and elaboration of information so as to enter or commit that information to memory. People may use different encoding strategies for prospective memory tasks than they use for retrospective memory tasks. Consistent with this possibility, Koriat et al. (1990) found that actions encoded to be executed later are better recalled than actions that are encoded for a later recall test. It is likely that additional encoding processes found in prospective memory tasks are related to the requirement to remember to perform the intended action. Most prominently, during encoding of a prospective memory intention people often construct plans for how and when the intended activity will be accomplished (Ellis 1996, Marsh et al. 1998b). These plans may also anticipate the conditions or arrange the conditions under which the intended action must be retrieved, information that may not typically be considered when engaged in encoding for a retrospective memory task.

Only a few studies have examined the planning processes in prospective memory, but it is already clear that individuals vary in their prospective memory planning in several ways. People vary in the extent to which they use external aids like notes or lists to keep track of their plans (Marsh et al. 1998b). The complexity of the plans also varies and for older adults especially, more complex plans seem to be related to the effectiveness with which the intention is eventually executed (Kliegel et al. 2000).

Storage refers to maintaining information in memory during the retention interval. It would be adaptive if the storage of prospective memory were somewhat special so that the intended action would be remembered at the time it needed to be performed. Evidence to date suggests there may indeed be several ways in which prospective memory storage is different from retrospective memory storage. First, it may be that prospective memories (intended actions) enjoy greater and more persistent activation in memory (Goschke and Kuhl 1993, Marsh et al. 1998a).

Theoretically, memories in a more activated state more easily come to mind when one comes across cues in the environment that are related to those memories. It would also be adaptive if these memories for intentions would be deactivated after the activity was performed, so that they would not come to mind later. Preliminary findings suggest that such deactivation may occur (Marsh et al. 1998a), although for older adults under demanding conditions it appears that the memory for the intention may persist so that they inappropriately repeat their performance of the intended action (Einstein et al. 1998).

Another special storage feature of prospective memory suggested in one study is that prospective memories may actually become stronger as the retention (storage) time lengthens (Hicks et al. 2000). This is in dramatic contrast to the well-known finding that retrospective memory often declines with increased retention intervals. Additional research is needed to explain this provocative finding that prospective memories become better as the retention time increases. One clear possibility is that people remind themselves about the intended activity during the retention interval, especially as the duration increases between the formation of the initial intention and the point at which the intention can be performed. Remindings would presumably refresh the memory of the intended activity, thereby increasing the memorability of the intended action and its likelihood of being successfully performed at the appropriate time (Guynn et al. 1998).

Retrie al refers to accessing information in long-term memory so that it can be brought into awareness and used in a conscious fashion. As noted earlier in this research paper, a critical feature of prospective remembering is that retrieval must be initiated by the individual performing the prospective memory task. By contrast, retrieval in a retrospective memory task is initiated by somebody else (e.g., an experimenter) who prompts the individual to retrieve the target information. Accordingly, retrieval processes in prospective memory are thought to be somewhat different from those that are characteristic of retrospective memory retrieval.

Cognitive psychologists are not in agreement about how prospective memory retrieval operates. Consistent with the above analysis, one view proposes that prospective memory tasks are very high in self-initiated retrieval (Craik 1986) and therefore require a high level of cognitive resources to support retrieval. Another view proposes that initiating an intended action is not so much a memory process as it is an attentional process in which the person monitors the environment for signals that indicate that it is appropriate to perform the action (e.g., Burgess and Shallice 1997). By these views, prospective memory tasks should be especially difficult for older adults because of declines in cognitive or attentional resources that accompany aging. In support of this expectation, age-related decrements have been reported in time-based prospective memory tasks (Einstein et al. 1995, Park et al. 1997), tasks for which the intended action must be performed after a certain period of time has elapsed.

However, in some studies, older and younger subjects have surprisingly demonstrated equivalent prospective memory performance in event-based prospective memory tasks (Einstein and McDaniel 1990, Einstein et al. 1995). In an event-based task an external event signals that it is appropriate to perform the intended action. This event (or cue) might be the appearance of a friend to whom you have to give a message or a particular word in an experiment to which you have to give a special response. The absence of age differences in event-based prospective memory suggests that prospective memory retrieval can be a relatively automatic process. One idea is that the environmental cue may automatically stimulate the retrieval from memory of the intended action, after which the action can be performed (McDaniel et al. 1998).

More research is needed to understand completely prospective memory retrieval. Based on the literature it seems likely that prospective memory tasks may vary such that those with very few environmental cues (such as time-based tasks) may rely heavily on self- initiated retrieval and attentional processes, whereas prospective memory tasks with salient environmental cues may be supported by more automatic retrieval mechanisms. In addition, future work in prospective memory will no doubt increasingly focus on the planning processes that are involved in prospective memory (e.g., Dobbs and Reeves 1996, Burgess and Shallice 1997, Kliegel et al. 2000) and the potential special storage dynamics of prospective memories.


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