Visual working memory (VWM), the brief retention of past visual information, supports a range of cognitive functions. One of the defining, and largely studied, characteristics of VWM is how resource-limited it is, raising questions about how this resource is shared or split across memoranda. Since objects are rarely equally important in the real world, we ask how people split this resource in settings where objects have different levels of importance. In a psychophysical experiment, participants remembered the location of four targets with different probabilities of being tested after a delay. We then measured their memory accuracy of one of the targets. We found that participants allocated more resource to memoranda with higher priority, but underallocated resource to high- and overallocated to low-priority targets relative to the true probability of being tested. These results are well explained by a computational model in which resource is allocated to minimize expected estimation error. We replicated this finding in a second experiment in which participants bet on their memory fidelity after making the location estimate. The results of this experiment show that people have access to and utilize the quality of their memory when making decisions. Furthermore, people again allocate resource in a way that minimizes memory errors, even in a context in which an alternative strategy was incentivized. Our study not only shows that people are allocating resource according to behavioral relevance, but suggests that they are doing so with the aim of maximizing memory accuracy.
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