Working memory representations persist in the face of unexpected task alterations

Garrett Swan, Brad Wyble, Hui Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


It is well known that information can be held in memory while performing other tasks concurrently, such as remembering a color or number during a separate visual search task. However, it is not clear what happens to stored information in the face of unexpected tasks, such as the surprise questions that are often used in experiments related to inattentional and change blindness. Does the unpredicted shift in task context cause memory representations to be cleared in anticipation of new information? To answer this question, we ran two experiments where the task unexpectedly switched partway through the experiment with a surprise question. Half of the participants were asked to report the same attribute (Exp. 1 = Identity, Exp. 2 = Color) of a target stimulus in both presurprise and postsurprise trials, while for the other half, the reported attribute switched from identity to color (Exp. 1) or vice versa (Exp. 2). Importantly, all participants had to read an unexpected set of instructions and respond differently on the surprise trial. Accuracy on the surprise trial was higher for the same-attribute groups than the different-attribute groups. Furthermore, there was no difference in reaction time on the surprise trial between the two groups. These results suggest that information participants expected to report can survive an encounter with an unexpected task. The implication is that failures to report information on a surprise trial in many experiments reflect genuine differences in memory encoding, rather than forgetting or overwriting induced by the surprise question.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1408-1414
Number of pages7
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Sensory Systems
  • Linguistics and Language


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