Evaluating and excluding swap errors in analogue tests of working memory

Sci Rep. 2016 Jan 13;6:19203. doi: 10.1038/srep19203.


When observers retrieve simple visual features from working memory, two kinds of error are typically confounded in their recall. First, responses reflect noise or variability within the feature dimension they were asked to report. Second, responses are corrupted by "swap errors", in which a different item from the memory set is reported in place of the one that was probed. Independent evaluation of these error sources is vital for understanding the structure of internal representations and their binding. However, previous methods for disentangling these errors have been critically dependent on assumptions about the noise distribution, which is a priori unknown. Here I address this question with novel non-parametric (NP) methods, which estimate swap frequency and feature variability with fewer prior assumptions, and without a fitting procedure. The results suggest that swap errors are considerably more prevalent than previously appreciated (accounting for more than a third of responses at set size 8). These methods also identify which items are swapped in for targets: when the target item is cued by location, the items in closest spatial proximity are most likely to be incorrectly reported, thus implicating noise in the probe feature dimension as a source of swap errors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Computer Simulation
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Mental Recall*
  • Models, Statistical*