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19.3: Implicit memory

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    While explicit memory consists of the things that we can consciously report that we know, implicit memory refers to knowledge that we cannot consciously access. However, implicit memory is nevertheless exceedingly important to us because it has a direct effect on our behavior. Implicit memory refers to the influence of experience on behavior, even if the individual is not aware of those influences. As you can see in Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), there are three general types of implicit memory: procedural memory, classical conditioning effects, and priming.

    Behaviorism_1.gif
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Types of memory. [“Types of Memory” by University of Minnesota is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.]

    Procedural memory refers to our often unexplainable knowledge of how to do things. When we walk from one place to another, speak to another person in English, dial a cell phone, or play a video game, we are using procedural memory. Procedural memory allows us to perform complex tasks, even though we may not be able to explain to others how we do them. There is no way to tell someone how to ride a bicycle; a person has to learn by doing it. The idea of implicit memory helps explain how infants are able to learn. The ability to crawl, walk, and talk are procedures, and these skills are easily and efficiently developed while we are children despite the fact that as adults we have no conscious memory of having learned them.

    A second type of implicit memory is classical conditioning effects, in which we learn, often without effort or aware- ness, to associate neutral stimuli (such as a sound or a light) with another stimulus (such as food), which creates a naturally occurring response, such as enjoyment or salivation. The memory for the association is demonstrated when the conditioned stimulus (the sound) begins to create the same response as the unconditioned stimulus (the food) did before the learning.

    The final type of implicit memory is known as priming, or changes in behavior as a result of experiences that have happened frequently or recently. Priming refers both to the activation of knowledge (e.g., we can prime the concept of “kindness” by presenting people with words related to kind- ness) and to the influence of that activation on behavior (people who are primed with the concept of kindness may act more kindly).

    One measure of the influence of priming on implicit memory is the word fragment test, in which a person is asked to fill in missing letters to make words. You can try this your- self: First, try to complete the following word fragments, but work on each one for only three or four seconds. Do any words pop into mind quickly?

    _ ib _ a _ y
    _ h _ s _ _ i_ n _ o_ k
    _ h _ is _

    Now read the following sentence carefully:

    “He got his materials from the shelves, checked them out, and then left the building.”

    Then try again to make words out of the word fragments.
    I think you might find that it is easier to complete fragments 1 and 3 as “library” and “book,” respectively, after you read the sentence than it was before you read it. However, reading the sentence didn’t really help you to complete fragments 2 and 4 as “physician” and “chaise.” This difference in implicit memory probably occurred because as you read the sentence, the concept of “library” (and perhaps “book”) was primed, even though they were never mentioned explicitly. Once a concept is primed it influences our behaviors, for instance, on word fragment tests.

    RESEARCH FOCUS

    Priming Outside Awareness influences Behavior

    One of the most important characteristics of implicit memories is that they are frequently formed and used automatically, without much effort or awareness on our part. In one demonstration of the automaticity and influence of priming effects, John Bargh and his colleagues (1996) conducted a study in which they showed college students lists of five scrambled words, each of which they were to make into a sentence. Furthermore, for half of the research participants, the words were related to stereotypes of the elderly. These participants saw words such as the following:

    in Florida retired live people bingo man the forgetful plays

    The other half of the research participants also made sentences, but from words that had nothing to do with elderly stereotypes. The purpose of this task was to prime stereo- types of elderly people in memory for some of the participants but not for others.

    The experimenters then assessed whether the priming of elderly stereotypes would have any effect on the students’ behavior—and indeed it did. When the research participant had gathered all of his or her belongings, thinking that the experiment was over, the experimenter thanked him or her for participating and gave directions to the closest elevator. Then, without the participants knowing it, the experimenters recorded the amount of time that the participant spent walking from the doorway of the experimental room toward the elevator. As you can see in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), participants who had made sentences using words related to elderly stereo- types took on the behaviors of the elderly—they walked significantly more slowly as they left the experimental room.

    Behaviorism_1.gif
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) found that priming words associated with the elderly made people walk more slowly. [“Walking Speed and Priming Words” by Judy Schmitt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Adapted from Bargh et al. (1996)].

    To determine if these priming effects occurred out of the awareness of the participants, Bargh and his colleagues asked yet another group of students to complete the priming task and then to indicate whether they thought the words they had used to make the sentences had any relationship to each other, or could possibly have influenced their behavior in any way. These students had no awareness of the possibility that the words might have been related to the elderly or could have influenced their behavior. ■

    Our everyday behaviors are influenced by priming in a wide variety of situations. Seeing an advertisement for cigarettes may make us start smoking, seeing the flag of our home country may arouse our patriotism, and seeing a student from a rival school may arouse our competitive spirit. And these influences on our behaviors may occur without our being aware of them.


    This page titled 19.3: Implicit memory is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kate Votaw.

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