Slipping Through the Cracks: The Peril of Unexpected Interruption on the Contents of Working Memory

Ryan E. O’Donnell, Brad Wyble

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Working memory allows us to hold specific pieces of information in an active and easily retrieved state, but what happens to that information during an unexpected interruption between study and test? To answer this question, we used a surprise trial paradigm in which an unexpected event precedes a probe of the observer’s memory for a search target. In the first set of experiments, participants were tasked to report the identity of the target letter before unexpectedly being asked to read a task-irrelevant passage. We observed that the introduction of this passage interfered with the observer’s memory of the target letter, but this interference only occurred after participants had experience completing the task without interruption. However, a remember cue placed just prior to the reading prompt reduced this cost, suggesting that participants can rapidly reinforce information about the target in working memory to resist the interference. We then used this same cuing manipulation to test whether information in an attribute amnesia paradigm, which unexpectedly probes an attribute relevant to target selection but irrelevant to participant’s response expectations, could also be protected against unexpected interference. Using this paradigm, we observed that a remember cue did not improve performance following the surprising event, which supports theories that attribute amnesia is not caused solely by interference. These results reveal both the vulnerability and flexibility of working memory and demonstrate the importance of understanding how task experience establishes expectations that impact the underlying cognitive representations formed by the observer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)990-1003
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jan 12 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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