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Hasher, L., & Zacks, R. T. (1979). Automatic and effortful processes in memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108, 356-388.


A framework for the conceptualization of a broad range of memory phenomena is proposed in this article. The framework integrates research on memory performance in young children, the elderly, and individuals under stress with research on memory performance in normal college students. One basic assumption of this viewpoint is that encoding operations vary in their attentional requirements. Operations that drain minimal energy from our limited-capacity attentional mechanisms are called automatic; their occurrence does not interfere with other ongoing cognitive activity. Automatic operations function at a constant level under all circumstances. They occur without intention and do not benefit from practice. Certain automatic processes, we propose, are ones for which humans are genetically "prepared." These processes encode the fundamental aspects of the flow of information, namely, spatial, temporal, and frequency-of-occurrence information. These automatic processes are expected to show limited developmental trends. Other automatic processes develop through practice and function to prevent the subcomponents of complex skills from overloading our limited-capacity system. Contrasted with these processes are effortful operations such as rehearsal and elaborative mnemonic activities. They require considerable capacity and so interfere with other cognitive activities also requiring capacity. They are initiated intentionally and show benefits from practice.

A second assumption of the present framework is that attentional capacity varies both within and among individuals. Depression, high arousal levels, and old age are among the variables thought to reduce attentional capacity. The conjunction of the two basic assumptions of the proposed framework yields the important prediction that the aged and individuals under stress will show a decrease in performance only on specific memory tasks, namely, on tasks requiring effortful processing.

Evidence from the literature on development, aging, depression, and normal memory is presented in evaluation of the framework, and four experiments are described. The bulk of the available data is supportive of the framework. For instance, evidence indicates that frequency processing is not influenced by intention, practice, depression, or age. The article also includes discussion of the origins of this viewpoint in other attention and memory theories.

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