The role of proactive interference in working memory training and transfer

Abstract

Recent work on working memory training has produced conflicting results regarding the degree and generality of transfer to other cognitive processes. However, few studies have investigated possible mechanisms underlying transfer. The current study was designed to test the role of proactive interference in working memory training and transfer. Eighty-six young adults participated in a pretest–posttest design, with ten training sessions in between. In the two working memory training conditions, subjects performed an operation span task, with one condition requiring recall of letters on every trial (operation-letters), whereas the other condition alternated between letters, digits, and words as the to-be-remembered items across trials (operation-mix). These groups were compared to an active-control group (visual-search). Working memory, verbal fluency, and reading comprehension measures were administered in pretest and posttest sessions. All groups significantly increased their performance over the ten training sessions. There was evidence of strategy-specific benefits on transfer, such that transfer to working memory measures was higher for the operation-letters group on tasks specifically involving letters, and no differential transfer to working memory tests without letters, to verbal fluency, or to reading comprehension. The results indicate that proactive interference does not appear to play a causal role in determining transfer from working memory training, and instead a strategy account based on stimulus content provides a more parsimonious explanation for the pattern of training and transfer.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Persson and Reuter-Lorenz (2008) was retracted due to undetected programming issues in the training groups (see Persson & Reuter-Lorenz, 2011). When correcting the programming problem, Persson and Reuter-Lorenz (2011) were unable to replicate the positive transfer results published in their 2008 article.

  2. 2.

    For one subject in the operation-letters group, there was a power outage halfway through the subject’s 8th training session. For a second subject in the operation-letters group, there was an internet network outage during the subject’s 3rd training session. In order to retain these subjects’ data for the training analyses, we used the highest level the subjects had obtained during the session to that point. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say these subjects completed 9.5 and 9.75 training sessions, respectively.

  3. 3.

    The operation-mix analysis does not include one subject who completed the entire first training session but the file did not save correctly, resulting in a loss of the necessary recall data from the last trial involving digits as the to-be-remembered items.

  4. 4.

    The letter 3-back result is one finding with a slight divergence between the ANOVA and ANCOVA results. While the follow-up ANCOVA comparing the operation-letters and visual-search groups for 3-back letter was marginally significant, the 2 × 2 follow-up ANOVA group x session interaction was not significant (Table 4).

  5. 5.

    Category fluency is the other outcome in which the ANOVA and ANCOVA approaches differ. Although the interaction term from the ANOVA model was not significant, the group effect in the ANCOVA model was significant (Table 3). There are two reasons we do not think real transfer occurred for category fluency, in spite of the significant ANCOVA group effect. First, the within-group paired-samples t tests was not significant for either the operation-letters group, t(29) = 0.833, p = 0.412, gav = 0.173; operation-mix group, t(26) = − 1.446, p = 0.160, gav = − 0.251; or visual-search group, t(28) = − 0.663, p = 0.513, gav = − 0.145. These non-significant changes mean neither training group produced a change that was significantly different from 0. Second, the significant effect was likely driven by the non-significant increase from pretest to posttest for the operation-letters group, and the non-significant decrease from pretest to posttest for the operation-mix and visual-search groups (Table 2), a pattern that might produce statistical significance but is inconsistent with training producing transfer (see Redick, 2015, for further discussion).

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Acknowledgements

The research reported here was funded by the Office of Naval Research (Award # N00014-12-1-1011) to RWE. While working on this manuscript, TSR was supported by the National Institutes of Health (Award # 2R01AA013650-11A1). The research described here was presented at the 2015 annual meetings of the Association for Psychological Science and the Midwestern Psychological Association. We thank Devlin Bertha, Chandani Bhatt, Haley Brower, Caleb Carriere, Taylor Daniel, Kent Etherton, Andrea Grovak, Anoop Javalagi, Yun Qi Lim, Sarika Srivastava, and Michael White for assistance with data collection and scoring. We thank Nash Unsworth and Matt Robison for helpful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript.

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Redick, T.S., Wiemers, E.A. & Engle, R.W. The role of proactive interference in working memory training and transfer. Psychological Research (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-019-01172-8

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