Examining the role of context variability in memory for items and associations

William R. Aue, Jessica M. Fontaine, Amy H. Criss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


What properties of a word make it easy or difficult to remember? Word frequency and context variability are separate, closely related word properties that have disparate influences on memorability. The influence of word frequency changes depending on the memory task, with high-frequency words tending to be recalled better and low-frequency words to be recognized better. Conversely, low-context-variability words tend to be remembered better across tasks. One proposed explanation for the low-variability advantage is that low-variability words are easier to associate with the experimental context, given that they are associated with fewer extra-experimental contexts. On the basis of this explanation, it has been suggested that the formation of interitem associations during encoding should interfere with the formation of item-to-context associations, attenuating the low-variability advantage. Across experiments, we tested whether focusing on interitem associations disrupted the low-variability advantage, by manipulating encoding tasks, test expectancy, final test condition, word frequency, and context variability. Focusing on interitem associations did not harm performance for low-variability words. Words low in both frequency and variability were recognized better, but word pairs composed of high-frequency, low-variability words were recognized better in associative recognition. On the basis of the data, we suggest that focusing on interitem associations does not come at the expense of item-to-context associations. Moreover, the data further support the idea that frequency and variability are distinct properties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)940-954
Number of pages15
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018


  • Associative memory
  • Memory
  • Recognition
  • Word recognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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