The basis of report-difference superiority in delayed perceptual comparison tasks

Abstract

A major role for visual short-term memory (VSTM) is to mediate perceptual comparisons of visual information across successive glances and brief temporal interruptions. Research that has focused on the comparison process has noted a marked tendency for performance to be better when participants are required to report a difference between the displays rather than report the absence of a difference (i.e. a sameness). We refer to this performance asymmetry as report-difference superiority (RDS). It has been suggested that RDS reflects the operation of a reflexive mechanism that generates a mismatch signal during the comparison of visual input with information maintained in VSTM. This bottom-up mechanism therefore gives evidence for the presence of a feature change but not for the absence of such a change; consequently, a sameness is harder to detect than a difference between two displays. We test this explanation, and determine whether by itself it is a sufficient explanation of the RDS. In a delayed comparison task we find the RDS effect is most prevalent when items retain the same display locations; however, the effect does persist even when compared item locations were scrambled across memory and test arrays. However, with a conjunction task this scrambling of locations was effective in wholly abolishing the RDS effect. We consider that the RDS effect is a consequence of local comparisons of features, as well as global statistical comparisons.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We opted for a task where observers made unspeeded responses to the displays, as is the case in most comparison tasks (e.g. Luck & Vogel, 1997), rather than one that emphasised speed of responding, as Hyun et al. (2009) did. We opted for this because our pilot work in which both speed and accuracy of responding was emphasised produced data that contained differential speed-error trade-offs that made it difficult to validly compare across the conditions.

  2. 2.

    To give further clarification to the CF manipulation, note that, under report difference instructions, the CF value is effectively a direct reflection of the number of colour changes that occur between memory and test. Under report-sameness instructions, however, the CF value is reversed with respect to this metric. To express the CF value in terms of the number of colour changes one simply needs to subtract the CF value from the number of overall items (i.e. 4). Thus, for example, under report-sameness instructions CF-1, expressed in number of changes is: 4 minus 1 = 3.

  3. 3.

    This particular interaction should be treated with some caution. Some participants were near or at ceiling in the 3-CF and 4-CF conditions, at least for the report difference trials. This may have inflated the extent of this interaction.

  4. 4.

    Hyun et al. (2009) also found an interaction between these variables. They took reaction time, rather than accuracy, as the primary measure. They did not find the same pattern that we report with respect to the critical feature variable. However, they do not give enough detail in their paper about if and how accuracy varied across the conditions for us to make any comparison with their results. The demands of the task are also rather different in our task because the items are spatially scrambled on half the trials so it isn’t clear how comparable data would be expected to be in any case.

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Pilling, M., Barrett, D.J. & Gellatly, A. The basis of report-difference superiority in delayed perceptual comparison tasks. Mem Cogn 48, 856–869 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-020-01023-7

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Keywords

  • Perceptual comparisons
  • Visual short-term memory
  • Location
  • Global statistics