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Data_MathyChekafCowan_JOC2018_Simple and Complex Working Memory Tasks Allow Similar Benefits of Information Compression

Mathy, Fabien; Chekaf, Mustapha; Cowan, Nelson

Original data files for the article Mathy, Fabien, Chekaf, Mustapha, & Cowan Nelson (2018). Simple and Complex Working Memory Tasks Allow Similar Benefits of Information Compression. Journal of Cognition.

Abstract : Complex working memory span tasks were designed to engage multiple aspects of working memory and impose interleaved processing demands that limit the use of mnemonic strategies, such as chunking. Consequently, the average span is usually lower (4 ± 1 items) than in simple span tasks (7 ± 2 items). One possible reason for the higher span of simple span tasks is that participants can take advantage of the spare time to chunk multiple items together to form fewer independent units, approximating 4 ± 1 chunks. It follows that the respective spans of these two types of tasks could be equal (at around 4 ± 1) if stimulus lists exclusively used nonchunkable stimulus items. To manipulate the chunkability of the stimulus lists, our method involved a measure of their compressibility, i.e., the extent to which a pattern exists that can be detected and used as a basis of chunk formation. We predicted an interaction between the types of tasks and chunkability/compressibility, supporting a single higher span for the condition in which a simple span task was combined with chunkable items. The three other conditions were predicted to prevent chunking processes, either because the interleaved processing task did not allow any chunking process to occur or because the noncompressible material inherently limited the chunkability of information. The prediction that chunking is important solely in simple spans was not confirmed: Effects of information compression contributed to performance levels to a similar extent in both tasks according to a theoretically-based metric. This result suggests that i) complex span tasks might overestimate storage capacity in general, and ii) the difference between simple and complex span performance levels must rest in some mechanism other than prevention of a chunking strategy by the interleaved processing task in complex span tasks.

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