Not What U Expect: Effects of Prediction Errors on Item Memory

Javier Ortiz-Tudela, Sophie Nolden, Francesco Pupillo, Isabelle Ehrlich, Iryna Schommartz, Gözem Turan, Yee Lee Shing

The characterization of the relationship between predictions and one-shot episodic encoding poses an important challenge for memory research. On the one hand, events that are compatible with our previous knowledge are thought to be remembered better than incompatible ones. On the other hand, unexpected situations, by virtue of their novelty, are known to cause enhanced learning. Several theoretical accounts try to solve this apparent paradox by conceptualizing prediction error (PE) as a continuum ranging from low PE (for expectation-matching events) to high PE (for expectation-mismatching ones). Under such a framework, the relationship between PE and memory encoding would be described by a U-shape function with higher memory performance for extreme levels of PE and lower memory for middle levels of PE. In this study, we tested the framework by using a gradual manipulation of the strength of association between scenes and objects to render different levels of PE and then tested for item memory of the (mis)matching events. In two experiments, in contrast to what was anticipated, recognition memory for object identity followed an inverted U-shape as a function of PE, with higher performance for intermediate levels of PE. Furthermore, in two additional experiments, we showed the relevance of explicit predictions at encoding to reveal such an inverted U pattern, thus providing the boundary conditions of the effect. We discussed our findings in light of existing literature relating PE and episodic memory, pointing out the potential roles of uncertainty in the environment, and the importance of the cognitive operations underlying encoding tasks.

J Exp Psychol Gen. 152(8), 2160–2176 (2023)


episodic memorypredictionprediction errorprior updating
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