What limits working memory capacity?

Psychol Bull. 2016 Jul;142(7):758-99. doi: 10.1037/bul0000046. Epub 2016 Mar 7.


We review the evidence for the 3 principal theoretical contenders that vie to explain why and how working memory (WM) capacity is limited. We examine the possibility that capacity limitations arise from temporal decay; we examine whether they might reflect a limitation in cognitive resources; and we ask whether capacity might be limited because of mutual interference of representations in WM. We evaluate each hypothesis against a common set of findings reflecting the capacity limit: The set-size effect and its modulation by domain-specificity and heterogeneity of the memory set; the effects of unfilled retention intervals and of distractor processing in the retention interval; and the pattern of correlates of WM tests. We conclude that-at least for verbal memoranda-a decay explanation is untenable. A resource-based view remains tenable but has difficulty accommodating several findings. The interference approach has its own set of difficulties but accounts best for the set of findings, and therefore, appears to present the most promising approach for future development. (PsycINFO Database Record

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*