Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Andrew Mienaltowski, Amy Brausch, Gordon Baylis

Degree Program

Department of Psychological Sciences

Degree Type

Master of Science


The central executive plays a key role in the encoding of visual stimuli in working memory, including the memory for faces in a social context. Faces often contain important details about the identity of social targets as well as the emotion that these targets are expressing. Encoding accuracy requires that we have resources to consider and organize facial features into a holistic representation of a target. Of course, emotion recognition accuracy may be critical to encoding success. The cognitive demand on the participant when evaluating facial stimuli impacts emotion recognition accuracy and therefore the encoding of facial features and emotion categories. In the present study, load is operationalized in terms of a working memory task in which participants encode three stimuli successively on each trial, while simultaneously performing a secondary task that either is or is not resource demanding to the central executive. The load on the central executive affects memory for individual and bound features, including facial emotion, person identity, and the conjunction of the two. Participants completed either a standard visuospatial short-term memory task using images of objects that vary in terms of shape and/or color, or they completed a modified version of this task in which they were asked to encode emotion cues and/or identity cues in faces of social targets. Consistent with expectations, in the object-based working memory task, item memory was greater in the articulatory suppression condition that in the counting condition – a condition that imposed an additional load on the participants’ updating capacity. Moreover, the additional load in the counting condition elicited a strong recency effect favoring the last item in the memory set. However, this recency effect did not emerge in the articulatory suppression condition but just in the additional counting condition. Finally, when considering the load imposed on visuospatial working memory by the stimuli themselves regardless of the concurrent digit task, recency effects emerged favoring the final position in the memory set for both conditions involving memory for a single feature (shape or color) and for the conjunction condition (shape + color). For the face-based working memory task, memory was superior in the emotion + identity conjunction condition than in the emotion or identity conditions. This is an interesting finding given that observers have to integrate more features to perform the conjunction condition than the single feature conditions. The possible distinctiveness gained by stimuli if participants are presented with faces that differ from one another in two complex domains (i.e., identity and emotion) is further discussed. Also, the conjunction condition in the object-based working memory task did not yield the worst memory performance contrary to expectations. Parallels between the object-based and face-based working memory in the conjunction condition are also further discussed. Item memory was greater in the articulatory suppression condition than in the counting condition for the face-based working memory task as well. Recency effects emerged for the final position in the memory set under both articulatory suppression and additional counting conditions, but the recency effect was stronger in the additional counting condition here just as observed in the object-based working memory task. This is consistent with the expectation that additional counting served to disrupt the updating process and possibly caused relevant stimulus features for the first two items in the memory set to slip away. Finally, the largest recency effects in the face-based working memory task emerged when participants remembered the conjunction of the facial emotion and identity. Just as additional counting adds a load to the updating process in visuospatial working memory, so does the need to integrate multiple facial features. An incremental increase in performance with each later serial position supports the prediction that updating in visuospatial memory may increase the fragility of the memory trace of early items in the set when executive functioning is taxed by either feature integration or the need to update in a concurrent task.


Other Social and Behavioral Sciences | Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences

Available for download on Wednesday, August 14, 2024