In Lists, we looked at serial learning. It is a common way to learn lists. Using forward or backward chaining, the all of the items must be recalled and in the right order. This approach limits your natural desire to cluster or chunk meaningful items together. Blocking items (organizing them in blocks) is what your local news show does: all the traffic is in one segment, all the sports in another. Serial learning doesn’t allow the use of these common techniques. But pairs are different.
Associated pairs, or paired associates, require bonds between items to be made. Paired associates build on Ebbinghaus’ sentence completion task. You get the start of a sentence and you finish it. If you are given the prompt “Every time it rains…” you get to fill in the rest. Ebbinghaus used it as a quick measure of intelligence. His focus was on what the responses were. He was interested in the quality of associations.
Francis Galton used sentence completion as a more thorough evaluation of intelligence. Although he used sentences, he preferred individual words as prompts. He believed these word associations would correlate with intelligence. Intelligence for Galton was a single entity and any task people do would reveal something about their intelligence. Galton both recorded and timed the responses. Delays in response were thought to indicate a less trained mind, a less intelligent person.
Carl Jung followed Galton’s approach of keeping track of the responses and timing them. He believed the delay in responses indicated an emotional block. Following in the path of Freud, Jung was looking for evidence of repression.
Cognitive scientists now believe that the delays are due to linguistic patterns and how many nodes an association must jump. Association patterns have commonalities but the individual range is quite wide. These patterns also can be quite erratic and amusing. This is why people enjoy playing word association games. Our paths always seem so logical but it is not easy to see how someone else came to THAT connection.
Associated pairs are learned as a single unit. When two stimuli are presented, we form a bond between them. We associate them together. Paired associates are what we do on a daily basis. Every time you learn a new word, you have to pair it with its concept. Every time you meet someone, you associate that person with certain emotions, circumstances and events. Every time you eat something that makes you sick, you associate the food and restaurant with that experience.
In pairs associates, invented by Mary Calkins, two stimuli are presented together. Calkins paired colors and numbers. She presented both to subjects, then tested for one. For example, a series of color-number combinations were presented. Then the colors were presented by themselves and subjects were asked to name the number that went with it. By varying the brightness and intensity of colors, Calkins found that color vividness worked better than neutral colors. She called this task “right associates” because you have to recall the right number to match the color presented. Essentially, she invented flash cards.
Calkins discovered three main principles:
- Frequency has the largest effect of memory. This supports Ebbinghaus’ total time hypothesis. The more times you see a stimulus, the easier it is to remember it.
- Vividness has an effect on memory. This supports the vonRestroff effect, indicating that distinctiveness breaks the list up into small lists.
- If vividness is kept constant, recency is the best predictor of performance. The most recent pairings presented were remembered best. This is the influence of short-term memory.
Calkins’ work showed we use multiple memory systems. Galton was wrong; memory is not a single entity. We have several memory systems that work together. Sentence completion and word associations rely heavily on long-term memory. They explore what you have already learned and stored away. Paired word associations rely on short-term memory.
If you are asked to recall the items on a list in order (serial recall), you will remember the first part of the list best. This is called primacy because recall is based on long-term memory. However, if you are asked to list any items on a list in any order (free recall), you report the most recent items. In a serial position graph, the first part of a long list is remembered best because of primacy (long-term memory). The last part of the list is remembered next best, because of recency (short-term memory), and the middle is remembered least well because there is no middle-of-a-list memory system.
The paired associate method is based on the premise that one stimulus can be cue or trigger for another. This is the underlying principle in classical conditioning, where two stimuli are paired together too. One acts as a cue and the other triggers a reflex. Skipping the reflex’s trigger, it is a S-R bond. A conditioned stimulus elicits a response.
One reason a class in personality theories is easier than one about biological psychology is associations. You can organize personality theories by theorist. If you learn a new fact about shaping, you can associate it with Skinner. If you learn a new fact about dopamine, it is more difficult to find build-in associations. You have to generate them yourself.
The importance of word associations was not lost on marketing executives. Coca-Cola wants you to associate the design on its can with fun. Pink (“a girls must-shop destination”) wants you to associate its name with good merchandise. Personally, I am always surprised that the products from Pink aren’t pink. In my head the color and the brand should go together.
Interestingly, word pairs seem to be stored as a single unit. Kids learning the alphabet tend to treat LMNOP as a single unit; they learn it all at once. The bonds between words tend to be unidirectional. If you learn Pepsi-party, it is not as easy to remember Pepsi if party is given as the cue. If you don’t know whether words or definitions will be used as cues, you should use both sides of you flash cards as cues.
Another odd way our minds work is shown in the types of recognition errors we make. If the instructions say to “push the switch up” we might think it said to push the switch down. First we store a dimension, then we refine it. We remember it is a direction (up-down or left-right) and later learn the specific pole. This is what happens when you remember changing to daylight saving time is turning back or turning forward but that’s as close as you get.