In Brief

Young adults with low working-memory capacity are more likely to falsely remember information than those with higher capacities, according to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition (Vol. 31, No. 1). The study, led by psychologist Jason M. Watson, PhD, of Washington University of St. Louis, suggests that people with higher working-memory capacity and, potentially, better control of their mental functions, are less susceptible to false memories.

The researchers began their study by screening University of Illinois at Chicago undergraduates for high and low working-memory capacity with a math and verbal memory test. They selected a group of 50 students with the highest working-memory capacity and a group of 50 with the lowest working-memory capacity.

Those groups studied lists of 16 related words, such as "bed, rest, awake, tired" intended to elicit a false memory of a nonpresented critical word, such as "sleep." Half of each group of students was forewarned that the lists were intended to illicit false memories.

"Essentially, we said to them, 'This is a memory trick--don't let us trick you,'" Watson says.

Then, the students wrote down the words they remembered. Among the students who didn't get a warning, both low and high working-memory capacity students recalled about 60 percent of the presented words and falsely remembered a nonpresented word 36 percent of the time.

However, the performance among the students who were warned varied: The high working-memory group falsely remembered nonpresented words 18 percent of the time, and the low working-memory group did so 33 percent of the time.

The results demonstrate that young adults with high working-memory capacity were better able to exert cognitive control when given the warning than those with low working-memory capacity, Watson says.

"Typically, participants tend to use forewarnings to reduce their susceptibility to false memories," he says. "But young adults who had low working-memory capacity were unable to use the warning to their advantage in our study. This finding is consistent with the idea that there are individual differences in cognitive control abilities in young adults."