Home > Attention, Development, Memory > Effects of Divided Attention on False Memories: Good News for Children, Not So for Adults

Effects of Divided Attention on False Memories: Good News for Children, Not So for Adults

Memory is an indispensable tool in our everyday lives, yet it is not perfect. Sometimes our own memory systems fail us, we remember things that we have never seen or recall events that have never happened. Such memories are called false memories, which have served as the topic of a large body of psychology research. Studies on false memories usually use the DRM paradigm (Desse, 1959; Roediger & McDermott, 1995). This paradigm requires participants to study lists of words that are related in meaning to each other and to a critical lure (CL) that do not appear in the lists. After that, participants take a memory test. Results show that people tend to remember or recall the CL as frequently as they do the studied words, and each time the CL is recalled is considered a false memory.

Previous research has focused on the effects that conscious processing and valence-arousal (i.e., emotionality) may have on false memories across the lifespan. The big picture is that in both adulthood and childhood, false recognition is higher for CLs with negative valence-arousal than for neutral CLs, whereas fewer negative CLs than neutral CLs are falsely recalled. Also, the formation of false memories is an automatic process that occurs outside of conscious awareness. In other words, we are not aware that we are creating false memories. This automaticity is evidenced by studies that show that dividing attention, a condition that requires participants to employ conscious processing, does not reduce false memories (e.g., Wimmer & Howe, 2010; Experiment 2).

So do valence-arousal and divided attention work together to influence false memories in adults and children? This question was basically what Otgaar, Peters, and Howe (2012) were trying to answer. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know whether, in the DRM paradigm, dividing attention at the time of study affects true and false memories for neutral as well as negative CLs in adults and children. Participants were 178 children (7-year-olds and 11-year-olds) and young adults. They were randomly assigned to one of the two attention conditions (full, divided) and were asked to memorize 10 DRM word lists. Five of the 10 lists consisted of words that are semantically related to neutral CLs (bread, window, sweet, smoke, and foot), and the other five lists were negative (murder, pain, punishment, death, and cry). Aside from seeing words, participants in the divided attention condition also saw smileys of either red or green color. After the presentation of each word list, participants in the full attention condition immediately had a free recall test, in which they were asked to write down as many words from the list just presented as they could remember. Participants in the divided attention condition also had the free recall test, but not before indicating how many red smileys they had seen.

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Here are some of the most noteworthy results of this study:

  • The effects of divided attention on children’s false recall was in contrast to those on adults’ false recall. Specifically, whereas children’s false recall decreased with divided attention, adults’ false recall was higher when attention was divided.
  • True recall, or recall of words that had actually appeared in the lists, was worse in the divided attention condition than in the full attention condition.
  • Participants, children and adults alike, falsely recalled more neutral CLs than negative CLs.
  • Adults’ net accuracy (i.e., proportion of true recall) was affected by divided attention, whereas children’s was not.

So, what do these results tell us about divided attention, false memories, and emotion across the lifespan? First of all, divided attention is bad for true memories. When it comes to false memories, however, things are a little bit different. In this case, divided attention is still a nightmare for adults because it made their already-impaired memory even worse. For children, divided attention is good news to their false memories. As for emotion, it seems like negative emotion, though always the undesired one by the human mind and body, is better for memory than positive emotion is. Indeed, the most important finding of all was that divided attention influences false memories differently for children versus for adults. This suggests that there are certain changes in false memories across the lifespan. It would be interesting to find out exactly what those changes are, and whether other aspects of cognition have effects on false memories that show similar developmental shifts.

In short, the message here is that you should pay close attention to the wonderful stimuli around because it would help you keep your memories alive and well in your cognitive systems.

To read the original article, click here.


Deese , J. (1959). On the prediction of occurrence of particular verbal intrusions in immediate recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58, 17-22. doi: 10.1037/h0046671

Roediger , H. L. McDermott , K. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in a list. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21, 803-814. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.21.4.803

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  1. May 7th, 2014 at 23:51 | #1

    The question posed at the end is rather interesting, what could be the cause for all of this? As I was reading this, I thought of the adults in the Stroop Task, which requires attentional control to perform well. The adults performed worse than younger participants, which was theorized to be due to the beginnings of breakdowns of attention. Maybe this could account for adults performing worse, since they cannot inhibit processing automatic input (most likely this would be words in this study) as well as those with good attentional control. Therefore, they would mostly read the list of words than focus on both faces and words. This could lead to the adults not showing the same benefit in preventing false memory as it would in children, since the attention is hard to control and “divide.” This attentional control is also needed in the False Memory paradigm to inhibit the activation of the CL by related words on the list. Attention allows the controlled process of monitoring to occur, which allows you to assess whether or not you truly saw the CL on the list. The results could occur just from attentional breakdowns, or maybe there could be a different connection between attention and memory. But, I do agree that more studies should be done to find the true source of this.

  2. October 7th, 2014 at 12:32 | #2

    Just as Emily comments above, I thought that this article was very thought provoking in terms of the changes in false memories across a lifespan, however, rather than reflecting on attentional control, the whole time I couldn’t help but think about top down processing. Top down processing is the ability of context and expectations to help process and interpret a situation. It is often used in conjuncture with bottom up processing to fully and accurately interpret a stimulus. For the DMR paradigm that was used, each word and CL are connected by a specific category that links them all together. And therefore, in order for the CL to function and be associated with the rest of the words in each group, there has to be associations already made between each of the words, and categories previous established before the experiment. In other words, in order to make these associations, top down processing must provide expectations for what kinds of words are categorized together. If this is the case then it makes sense that adults would have more false memories than children in the DMR paradigm because they have more top down processing because of more experience. Linking this with divided attention, when there is less attentional capacity available for these tests then adults are more likely to resort to top down processes leading to more false memories.

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