New manipulations to test stability bias and ease of processing effect on metamemory

Dr. Kevin M. Sailor, Veneta Callpani | Lehman College| |Cognitive Psychology| |12/14/2020|


The present study is an expansion on prior research about metamemory. New manipulations of word frequency and study repetition were introduced to test the ease of process and stability bias. Thirty-nine college students, native and non-native English speakers participated in the study. The data and results are consistent with stability bias hypothesis: students underestimated the word repetition because of their beliefs of the stability of their memory; but not with the ease of process ( the high frequency words had no significant effect). Further studies can be made to determine whether the non-native English speaker had an effect on this different result and see how language might be related to metamemory.  


Metamemory is the prediction people make about their memory based on their judgements and belief they have about how memory operates. We use this every day even when we are not aware of it. When we say “I will never forget the year of Covid-19 pandemic” we are making a judgment about that specific memory, or when we decide not to review for the test one day prior is due to our belief that we already know all the information. Metamemory is important because it drives our everyday decisions on what we need to learn, how long we need to study and where to focus our attention.  These beliefs can create biases which can lead to bad decisions.
Because of the important role metamemory plays in our life, many research and experiments have been conducted to determine how accurate metamemory is, are our beliefs justified or biased and what factors might influence that bias. A double dissociation between metamemory and memory performance has been shown when testing the perceptual fluency hypothesis (Beksen&Mulligan 2013). The hypotheses stated that easily perceived items are predicted to be remembered better regardless of the actual memory. To test this hypothesis, researchers manipulated perceptual fluency by inducing perceptual interference using backward masks. The results supported the theory: participants predicted they would recall better words that they perceived as fluent, but they recalled better words where perceptual interference was added.  Another study that supports this hypothesis and shows that fluency affects both metacognition and metamemory was conducted by Carpetner, Wilford, Kornell & Mullaney, (2013). They separated two groups of students and had them view two videos; one fluent lecture and one disfluent version of the same lecture by the same professor. The group of students who viewed the fluent lecture predicted that they learned more  compared to the other group, however, the actual memory performance did not differ as a function of the lecture fluency. Kornell, Rhodes, Caste, & Tauber (2011) suggested that people think their memories are much more stable than they really are. This is called stability bias and to test this, they conducted two experiments where participants had to memorize a list of words. The study design featured two variables: type size (small and large) and number of study trials (one or two). Participants were given instructions, then asked to estimate the chance of recalling each word. The results were as expected. Participants perceived the large type size words as fluent, easier to remember therefore they predicted a high percentage of recall, but the number of study trials only affected the actual recall. Next, they added 3 additional chances to study the words. The recall prediction was low compared with the actual recall. Participants underestimated the importance of additional study trials.

Based on previous studies, considering that the ease of process is correct, then anything that influences ease of process will influence the judgment of learning. If we perceive something as easy to process, then our belief that we have learned more increases. There is a way to expand this ease of processing hypothesis by testing a new manipulation. The goal of this experiment is to test how new manipulation such as word frequency affects the ease of process, and how study repetition manipulation is related to the stability bias. We expect that word frequency will be perceived as easy to remember, therefore participants will predict to recall more of those words, and they will not take in consideration the announcement of repetition words because they believe their memory is much more stable than it really is.



Thirty-nine undergraduate students in Cognitive Psychology class participated in a study designed to test metamemory. The academic background of the students is similar: they are psychology majors, and/or biology- brain science track. The average age = 25.9. There were 16 native English speakers and 23 were either bilingual or non-native speakers of English.


The study was conducted online. All participants had access to the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, and they all had a demo worksheet in front of them to complete. This was done synchronously. The worksheet had two columns, one was for the number of trials and the other one was for the estimated recall.  A list of 36 words in capital was presented to the students to study. These words selected varied in word frequency. The study list was organized in two parts : ½ of the high frequency words were presented one time in each list, and ½ of the low frequency words were presented two times in each list. A counterbalancing method was used to control the order effect. So, the order of words in list one was reversed in list two. Each word that was studied one time in list one, was studied two times in list two. Each word that was studied two times in list one, was studied one time in list 2.Participants were told to memorize these words, make an estimated recall of the words, and during the estimation they will be told whether they will get a 1 or 2 total chances to study each word.


The students were provided with the demo worksheet and with the instructions for the experiment. Thirty-six words were presented with a note of whether each word will be repeated a second time or not. During the first presentation, students were asked to make an estimated call for each word expressed in a percentage from 0-100% chance of recalling that word later.  After studying these words and writing down the percentage of the estimated recall, a second presentation of the words that they were told to have a second chance opportunity to study, was shown to the students. After this, they were asked to write down as many words as they can remember in two minutes.  Next they were instructed to write down next to each word their estimation recall. Words order in first trial: legislate, history, morning, travesty, charade, courier, voucher, distance, flannel, article, original, careful, mistake, navigator, literary, fiasco, wardrobe, people, word, window, jamboree, trouble, physical, tonight, friend, scorpion, medicine, birthday, mustang, festival, serious, question, seep, obscenity, intestine, number, epidemic.


For all analyses, a paired samples t-test statistical procedure was used. Participants made judgments of learning for each word, and the average of words in each of four conditions- high frequency words presented once, low frequency words presented once, high frequency words presented twice, and low frequency words presented twice- was calculated. For each condition we calculated the percentage of those words recalled.  An analysis of word frequency on predicted recall was made. To determine the effect of the word frequency on predicted recall, the difference between predicted recall for high frequency M=55.7 and predicated recall for low frequency M=39.4 was calculated. To compare these numbers, a paired samples t- test method was used and the result was reliable ( t(38)= 5.2, p< .001). The effect of word frequency in actual recall was also reliable (t(38)= 3.1, p< .004).To calculate the number of study opportunities effect on predicted recall similar analysis was used. The difference was not reliable for the predicted recall ( t (38)= 1.4, p= .16) but it was reliable for the actual recall ( t(38)= 7.2, p< .001).To determine whether metamemory matches the actual recall for the word frequency, the average predicted recall difference for high and low frequency was calculated to be M=16.3 , and M=10.5 for the actual recall. The difference of these numbers, using the paired sample t-test, was not reliable (t (38)= 1.48, p= .15). We used the same method to find whether the metamemory matches actual memory for study repetition.  The average difference for the predicted recall was 3.3% versus 20.4% for the actual recall. This difference was reliable ( t(38)=-, 5.63, p < .001).


We expanded the research about the ease of processing and the stability bias by testing new manipulations. It was expected that the high frequency words would be perceived as easier and more memorable, and the study repetition would be underestimated because of the belief that memory is more stable than it actually is. Therefore, the words shown twice had no effect on the students prediction but they had an effect in actual recall. The data is consistent with the stability bias hypothesis, where the average difference between the predicted and actual recall was reliable. This supports previous research (Kornell, Rodhes et al., 2011). However, our data is not consistent with the previous research (e.g., Carpenter et al., 2013) regarding the ease of processing.  The hypothesis was that ease of process would affect the predicted recall but not the actual performance. Our data shows that it actually had an effect on the actual performance. One reason for this new finding might be the presence of non-native English speakers. There is a probability that some words were new for the non-native speakers therefore their memory for those words wouldn’t be as good. This effect was not captured in our experiment due to the small sample size (which might be another reason for the inconsistent result compared to other research), but further studies can be done in the future to determine the difference between the non-native English speakers and native speakers. This would aid in the study of how language affects memory.


       Besken, M., & Mulligan, N. W. (2013). Easily perceived, easily remembered? Perceptual interference produces a double dissociation between metamemory and memory performance. Memory & cognition41(6), 897–903.

       Carpenter, S. K., Wilford, M. M., Kornell, N., & Mullaney, K. M. (2013). Appearances can be deceiving: instructor fluency increases perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning. Psychonomic bulletin & review20(6), 1350–1356.

       Kornell, N., Rhodes, M. G., Castel, A. D., & Tauber, S. K. (2011). The ease-of-processing heuristic and the stability bias: dissociating memory, memory beliefs, and memory judgments. Psychological science22(6), 787–794.

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