Focused memory search in fact retrieval

Michael McCloskey, Kurt Bigler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Several studies of fact retrieval have shown that the more facts a person learns about a concept, the longer it takes him or her to retrieve any of these facts. This result has been interpreted to mean that retrieval of a fact about a concept involves a search of all facts stored in memory with that concept. In the present study, it is suggested that retrieval involves not an unfocused search of all facts stored with a concept, but rather a focused memory search that examines relevant stored facts and ignores irrelevant information. This argument is supported by three experiments in which subjects first learned simple facts (e.g., "The banker likes horses") and then made speeded true-false decisions for test probes le.g., "The banker likes elephants"). Specifically, results suggest that facts stored with a concept may be organized into subsets. For example, a person's knowledge about Richard Nixon might be organized into subsets concerning Nixon's resignation, his trips to China, his family, and so on. The data further suggest that a person attempting to retrieve a fact about a concept (e.g., the name of Nixon's wife) may simply decide which subset is most likely to contain the desired fact (e.g., the subset concerning Nixon's family) and search that subset. If the sought-for fact is found in this subset, the search process terminates. If, however, the desired information is not located, other subsets of facts may be searched before the retrieval attempt is given up. The notion that memory search focuses on relevant stored facts and ignores irrelevant information may help to explain why experts (i.e., people who know a large number of facts about a topic) do not experience great difficulty in retrieving facts in their areas of expertise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)253-264
Number of pages12
JournalMemory & Cognition
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 1980

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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