Strategic trade-offs between quantity and quality in working memory

Daryl Fougnie, Sarah M. Cormiea, Anish Kanabar, George A. Alvarez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Is working memory capacity determined by an immutable limit-for example, 4 memory storage slots? The fact that performance is typically unaffected by task instructions has been taken as support for such structural models of memory. Here, we modified a standard working memory task to incentivize participants to remember more items. Participants were asked to remember a set of colors over a short retention interval. In 1 condition, participants reported a random item's color using a color wheel. In the modified task, participants responded to all items and their response was only considered correct if all responses were on the correct half of the color wheel. We looked for a trade-off between quantity and quality-participants storing more items, but less precisely, when required to report them all. This trade-off was observed when tasks were blocked and when task-type was cued after encoding, but not when task-type was cued during the response, suggesting that task differences changed how items were actively encoded and maintained. This strategic control over the contents of working memory challenges models that assume inflexible limits on memory storage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1231-1240
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • Quality
  • Quantity
  • Strategy
  • Trade-off
  • Visual working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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