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Alexandra Decker, Amy S. Finn*, Katherine Duncan*; We don't learn from our mistakes: error-related arousal impairs subsequent memory formation. Journal of Vision 2020;20(11):524. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/jov.20.11.524.
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Realizing that we’ve made an error triggers cognitive and behavioral adjustments, including increased arousal, attention, and more cautious responding (Jentzsch & Dudschig, 2009). These post-error adjustments are thought to boost task engagement and facilitate learning (Holroyd & Coles, 2002; Yeung, Botvinick, & Cohen, 2004). Yet, how errors affect memory encoding–a cognitive process foundational to learning–remains unknown. One possibility is that by increasing arousal and task engagement, errors would improve people’s ability to encode information that comes next. Alternatively, errors might lead to too much arousal and/or attentional capture, impairing people’s ability to encode information that comes next.
In two experiments, we tested whether categorization errors influence how well people encode information presented after errors. In experiment 1, participants (n=60) categorized trial-unique images as ‘living’ or ‘nonliving’ and following a short delay, performed a surprise memory test. We found that people formed memories worse after categorization errors (p<0.001). In experiment 2, we investigated whether increases in arousal and/or attentional capture by errors contributed to post-error memory decrements in a separate cognitive control task. Participants (n=60) performed a modified Simon task in which they categorized trial-unique images as ‘natural’ or ‘man-made’, while we recorded pupil size and eye fixations and recognition memory for the images was later tested. Consistent with an arousal mechanism, individuals who displayed the largest increase in pupil size after errors had the greatest post-error memory decrements (p<0.05). Moreover, people with the largest post-error memory decrements tended to have better memory for the error trials and generated fewer fixations on post-error trials (ps<0.05) – consistent with the possibility that errors captured attention, leaving fewer encoding resources for information presented next. Our results suggest that rather than preparing people for learning opportunities, errors transiently impair memory encoding due to both increased arousal after errors and attentional capture by errors.
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