Focal/nonfocal cue effects in prospective memory: monitoring difficulty or different retrieval processes?

J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2010 May;36(3):736-49. doi: 10.1037/a0018971.


We investigated whether focal/nonfocal effects (e.g., Einstein et al., 2005) in prospective memory (PM) are explained by cue differences in monitoring difficulty. In Experiment 1, we show that syllable cues (used in Einstein et al., 2005) are more difficult to monitor for than are word cues; however, initial-letter cues (in words) are similar in monitoring difficulty to word cues (Experiments 2a and 2b). Accordingly, in Experiments 3 and 4, we designated either an initial letter or a particular word as a PM cue in the context of a lexical decision task, a task that presumably directs attention to focal processing of words but not initial letters. We found that the nonfocal condition was more likely than the focal condition to produce costs to the lexical decision task (task interference). Furthermore, when task interference was minimal or absent, focal PM performance remained relatively high, whereas nonfocal PM performance was near floor (Experiment 4). Collectively, these results suggest that qualitatively different retrieval processes can support prospective remembering for focal versus nonfocal cues.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology
  • Cues
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intention*
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Reaction Time / physiology