The simultaneous recognition of multiple words: A process analysis

Authors: Karl C. Klauer, Mikhail Spektor and Anne Voormann

Memory and Cognition, Vol. 49, 787–802, April, 2021

In everyday life, recognition decisions often have to be made for multiple objects simultaneously. In contrast, research on recognition memory has predominantly relied on single-item recognition paradigms. We present a first systematic investigation into the cognitive processes that differ between single-word and paired-word tests of recognition memory. In a single-word test, participants categorize previously presented words and new words as having been studied before (old) or not (new). In a paired-word test, however, the test words are randomly paired, and participants provide joint old–new categorizations of both words for each pair. Across two experiments (N = 170), we found better memory performance for words tested singly rather than in pairs and, more importantly, dependencies between the two single-word decisions implied by the paired-word test. We extended two popular model classes of single-item recognition to paired-word recognition, a discrete-state model and a continuous model. Both models attribute performance differences between single-word and paired-word recognition to differences in memory-evidence strength. Discrete-state models account for the dependencies in paired-word decisions in terms of dependencies in guessing. In contrast, continuous models map the dependencies on mnemonic (Experiment 1 & 2) as well as on decisional processes (Experiment 2). However, in both experiments, model comparison favored the discrete-state model, indicating that memory decisions for word pairs seem to be mediated by discrete states. Our work suggests that individuals tackle multiple-item recognition fundamentally differently from single-item recognition, and it provides both a behavioral and model-based paradigm for studying multiple-item recognition.