Prospective memory: are preparatory attentional processes necessary for a single focal cue?

Mem Cognit. 2010 Oct;38(7):860-7. doi: 10.3758/MC.38.7.860.


The preparatory attentional and memory processes theory of prospective memory (PM) assumes that PM retrieval requires resource-demanding preparatory attentional processes, whereas the multiprocess theory assumes that retrieval can also occur spontaneously. On the basis of showing slowing on an ongoing task (i.e., task interference)-even when the PM cue was highly salient (i.e., the participant's own name)-Smith, Hunt, McVay, and McConnell (2007) concluded that preparatory attentional processes are always necessary for PM retrieval. We argue that the presence of preparatory attentional processes cannot be used to rule out the existence of spontaneous retrieval processes, and the goal of the present research was to examine whether PM retrieval can occur in the absence of preparatory attentional processes. We varied whether we emphasized the importance of the PM task or the ongoing task, and we assessed task interference across quarters of the ongoing task. Our results showed no evidence of task interference and, hence, no evidence of preparatory attentional processes in the periods proximal to the target event, and yet participants showed high PM performance. Thus, the results suggest the existence of spontaneous retrieval processes and support the multiprocess theory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attention*
  • Cognition
  • Humans
  • Memory*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Task Performance and Analysis