Context-specific prospective-memory processing: evidence for flexible attention allocation adjustments after intention encoding

Mem Cognit. 2014 Aug;42(6):943-9. doi: 10.3758/s13421-014-0405-2.


Prospective memory (PM) is remembering to fulfill intentions in the future. Interference of unfulfilled intentions with ongoing activities reflects the allocation of attention to the PM task. Prior research has shown that, when people know in which specific context PM cues will occur, attention allocation is adaptive, with slower responses in the PM-relevant context. We examined whether people flexibly adjust their attention allocation when the PM-context association is unknown at intention encoding and must be learned on-task. Different stimulus shapes represented contexts in an ongoing task, with PM cues only occurring in trials with one specific shape. Participants informed about the PM-relevant shape responded more slowly on trials with this shape. Participants instructed that only one, unspecified shape was PM-relevant learned the PM-context association and also allocated attention flexibly, depending on context relevance. However, participants with no context-related information at intention encoding failed to learn the PM-context association, resulting in inflexible attention allocation and poorer PM performance. The present study provides evidence that people can flexibly update their attention-allocation policy, and thereby optimize their PM performance after initial intention encoding, but self-guided learning of intention-context associations appears to be limited.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Cues*
  • Humans
  • Intention*
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Young Adult