Implicit Memory

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Implicit memory refers to using stored information without trying to retrieve it. People often retain and use prior experiences without realizing it. For example, suppose that the word serendipity is not part of your normal working vocabulary, and one day you hear the word used in a conversation. A day later you find yourself using the word in conversation and wonder why. The earlier exposure to the word primed you to retrieve it automatically in the right situation without intending to do so.

Another example of implicit memory in everyday life is unintentional plagiarism. That is, people can copy the ideas of others without being aware they are doing so. The most famous case involved British singer-songwriter George Harrison, formerly of the Beatles. Harrison was sued because his 1970 hit song “My Sweet Lord” sounded strikingly similar to “He’s So Fine,” a 1963 hit by The Chiffons. Harrison denied that he had intentionally copied the earlier song but admitted that he had heard it before writing “My Sweet Lord.” In 1976 a judge ruled against Harrison, concluding that the singer had been unconsciously influenced by his memory.

Psychologists use the term priming to describe the relatively automatic change in performance resulting from prior exposure to information. Priming occurs even when people do not consciously remember being exposed to the information. One way to look for evidence of implicit memory, therefore, is to measure priming effects. In typical implicit memory experiments, subjects study a long list of words, such as assassin and boyhood. Later, subjects are presented with a series of word fragments (such as a_ _a_ _in and b_ _ho_d) or word “stems” (as or bo) and are instructed to complete the fragment or stem with the first word that comes to mind. The subjects are not explicitly asked to recall the list words. Nevertheless, the previous presentation of assassin and boyhood primes subjects to complete the fragments with these words more often than would be expected by guessing. This priming effect occurs even if the subjects do not remember studying the words before strong evidence of implicit memory. The hallmark of all implicit memory tests is that people are not required to remember; rather, they are given a task, and past experience is expressed on the test relatively automatically.

Remarkably, even amnesic individuals show implicit memory. In one experiment, amnesic patients and normal subjects studied lists of words and then were given both an explicit memory test (free recall) and an implicit memory test (word-stem completion). Relative to control subjects, the amnesic patients failed miserably at the free-recall test. Due to their memory disorder, they could consciously remember very few of the list words. On the implicit test, however, the amnesic patients performed as well or better than the normal subjects (see the accompanying chart entitled “Word Memory in Amnesia”). Even though the amnesic patients could not consciously access the desired information, they expressed prior learning in the form of priming on the implicit memory test. They retained the information without knowing it.

Studies have found that a person’s performance on implicit memory tests can be relatively independent of his or her performance on explicit tests. Some factors that have large effects on explicit memory test performance have no effect or even the opposite effect on implicit memory test performance. For example, whether people pay attention to the appearance, the sound, or the meaning of words has a huge effect on how well they can explicitly recall the words later. But this variable has practically no effect on their implicit memory test performance (see the accompanying chart entitled “Explicit and Implicit Memory”). Implicit tests seem to tap a different form of memory.

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