Strategic prioritisation enhances young and older adults' visual feature binding in working memory

Richard J Allen, Amy L Atkinson, Louise A Brown Nicholls

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Visual working memory for features and bindings is susceptible to age-related decline. Two experiments were used to examine whether older adults are able to strategically prioritise more valuable information in working memory and whether this could reduce age-related impairments. Younger (18-33 years) and older (60-90 years) adults were presented with coloured shapes and, following a brief delay, asked to recall the feature that had accompanied the probe item. In Experiment 1, participants were either asked to prioritise a more valuable object in the array (serial position 1, 2 or 3) or to treat them all equally. Older adults exhibited worse overall memory performance but were as able as younger adults to prioritise objects. In both groups, this ability was particularly apparent at the middle serial position. Experiment 2 then explored whether younger and older adults’ prioritisation is affected by presentation time. Replicating Experiment 1, older adults were able to prioritise the more valuable object in working memory, showing equivalent benefits and costs as younger adults. However, processing speed, as indexed by presentation time, was shown not to limit strategic prioritisation in either age group. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that, although older adults have poorer visual working memory overall, the ability to strategically direct attention to more valuable items in working memory is preserved across ageing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)363-376
Number of pages14
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number2
Early online date30 Sep 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2021


  • working memory
  • age related memory impairment
  • visual binding
  • prioritisation


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