Learning how to exploit sources of information

Brad Wyble, Michael Hess, Ryan E. O’Donnell, Hui Chen, Baruch Eitam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How is our strategy for forming memories shaped by experience with a task? Previous work using surprise questions (i.e., unexpected by the participant) has shown a remarkable inability to report attributes of an attended target in a search display. This representational poverty presumably reflects a form of information exploitation, in which control processes specialize the conversion of available information into memory representations. We hypothesize that such control is refined by repeated experience with a task, and as a result, memory representations will specialize as task experience accrues, such that report accuracy for an unexpected question will progressively worsen as the number of preceding trials increases. To test this, subjects were asked to report the location of a letter among three digits. The ability to respond correctly to a surprise question about the identity of that letter became worse as the experiment progressed. A follow-up study evaluated whether this incremental worsening of report accuracy could be explained as a buildup of proactive interference by varying the set of letters for the surprise test. The results were unchanged relative to the original experiment, which argues against a primary contribution of proactive interference in the worsening performance. The effect was replicated in a similar paradigm using color disks. These findings illustrate that repeated performance of a prescriptive task engages an adaptive modification of control processes that focus information processing on specific attributes of a stimulus that are expected to be necessary in the future, regardless of their immediate task relevance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)696-705
Number of pages10
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number4
StatePublished - 15 May 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements This project was completed with the support of a Binational Science Foundation Grant No. 2015299 to B.W. and B.E. This work was also funded by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 31771201), Humanities and Social Sciences Foundation of the Ministry of Education of China (No.17YJA190001), the Natural Science Foundation for Distinguished Young Scholars of Zhejiang Province (No.LR19C090002) and fundamental research funds for the central universities (2017QNA3018) to author H.C.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, The Psychonomic Society, Inc.


  • Attribute amnesia
  • Control processes
  • Exploration/exploitation
  • Irrelevance induced blindness
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


Dive into the research topics of 'Learning how to exploit sources of information'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this