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Hock, H. S., Malcus, L., & Hasher, L. (1986). Frequency discrimination: Assessing global-level and element-level units in memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 12, 232-240.


Subjects' knowledge of how often various events occur was used to assess the retention of memory unite for word-like strings of letters. A series of strings was presented at one of three exposure durations. Within the series, frequencies of occurrence of different strings and of the letters composing the strings were varied orthogonally. At relatively long exposure durations, subjects could discriminate the frequency of occurrence for both strings and their constituent letters. The formation of global-level (string) memory units was indicated by judgments of string frequency being unaffected by either the frequencies of their component letters or experimental conditions (brief exposures) that prohibited accurate judgment of letter frequencies. Although judgments of letter frequency were sometimes biased by the frequency of strings containing the letters, the success with which the letter discriminated different letters of letter frequency did not depend on the activation of string-level memory units. Furthermore, subjects' frequency judgments for letters were predictable from their recall of the strings containing the letters. These results, which could not be explained by Tversky and Kahneman's (1973) "availability heuristic", provided evidence for the formation of element-level (letter) memory units. A converging experiment established that element-level frequency information could be abstracted from words as well as nonwords, and further, that this information was stored in long-term memory.

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