Prospective and Retrospective Memory in Adulthood

Peter Graf, Bob Uttl, and Roger Dixon

Prospective memory (ProM) is a distinctive aspect of memory that forms the logical, natural complement of retrospective memory (RetM). ProM is required for carrying out planned activities, such as removing the pot before it boils over, getting groceries en route from work to home, and taking medication nightly at bedtime. However, despite the fact that it is intimately involved in many everyday activities and the fact that its breakdown seems as debilitating as impairments in RetM, ProM has received little attention by mainstream memory researchers, and the topic is frequently not even mentioned in introductory cognitive-psychology texts. We believe that this neglect of ProM has several causes, prominent among them are the absence in the literature of clear definitions of memory's prospective function and the lack of convincing empirical support for the claim that ProM is a distinct form of memory.

With the overall goal to increase the visibility of ProM, we begin this chapter by identifying and defining the uniquely prospective function of memory. This function appears to encompass a domain as wide as that of RetM. Therefore, we argue, ProM research should proceed with a divide-and-conquer strategy similar to that used for RetM research, that is, by identifying distinct subdomains (like episodic and semantic memory) and by pursuing research questions and theoretical accounts that focus on them. For the reasons that made it useful and even necessary to adopt clear subdomain labels and definitions for RetM, we believe that it will be equally useful and necessary in the future for ProM researchers to identify precisely which subdomain is targeted by each investigation.

In this chapter we focus on that subdomain of ProM that seems most directly analogous to James's (1890) memory proper, today more generally known as explicit episodic memory. We will identify this subdomain of ProM, herein called ProM proper (see Graf & Uttl, 2001), specify exactly how it differs from explicit episodic RetM, and show how it can be operationalized and measured. In addition, we use this chapter to introduce a new methodology for measuring ProM proper. A major advantage of this new methodology is that it yields a continuous index of performance, in contrast to existing methods that produce primarily success/failure data. We report new research that employed this methodology to demonstrate that various experimental manipulations and subject variables have different effects on ProM proper and on explicit episodic RetM performance. The finding of such performance dissociations supports the claim that ProM proper is a distinct form of memory.

A final objective of this chapter is to report new research on the hypothesis that ProM task performance is more sensitive to age-related changes than RetM task performance. This hypothesis builds, first, on the widespread assumption that aging is associated with a decline in the attention resources required for performing a wide range of cognitive tasks (Hasher & Zacks, 1979; Salthouse, 1980, 1985) and, second, on the notion that performance of ProM tasks is more dependent on attention resources than performance on RetM tasks (Craik, 1986). According to Craik, performance on all memory tests is determined by a combination of processes that are either driven or guided by the environment or initiated and controlled by the subject. He proposed that subject-initiated processing is more resource-demanding than environmentally guided processing, and because ProM tests provide less environmental cues for supporting performance than other memory tests, age-related performance differences are larger on ProM than RetM tests.

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