Can children prioritize more valuable information in working memory? An exploration into the effects of motivation and memory load

Publication authors

Atkinson, A. L., Waterman, A. H., & Allen, R. J


Recent research found no evidence that children aged 7–10 years are able to direct their attention to more valuable information in working memory. The current experiments examined whether children demonstrate this ability when the reward system used to motivate participants is engaging and age-appropriate. This was explored across different memory loads (3- vs. 4-item arrays) and modes of presentation (sequential vs. simultaneous). Younger (7–8 years) and older children (9–10 years) were shown 3 or 4 colored shapes and asked to recall the color of one probed item following a brief delay. Items were either presented sequentially (Experiment 1) or simultaneously (Experiment 2). Children completed a differential probe value condition, in which the first shape (Experiment 1) or the top-left shape (Experiment 2) was worth more points than the other items, and an equal probe value condition, in which all shapes were equally valuable. Children were told they could use the points collected to play a specially designed game at the end of the session, and that they would be given a prize if they collected enough points. When items were presented sequentially, significant probe value effects emerged, with children showing higher accuracy for the first item when this serial position was more valuable. This effect was consistent across age group and memory load. When items were encountered simultaneously, both groups showed probe value effects in the higher (4-item) memory load condition. This indicates that children can prioritize more valuable information in working memory when sufficiently motivated to do so. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)