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Although individuals with high and low working memory (WM) span appear to differ in the extent to which irrelevant information interferes with their performance on WM tasks, the locus of this interference is not clear. The present study investigated whether, when performing a WM task, high- and low-span individuals differ in the activation of formerly relevant, but now irrelevant items, and/or in their ability to correctly identify such irrelevant items. This was done in two experiments, both of which used modified complex WM span tasks. In Experiment 1, the span task included an embedded lexical decision task designed to obtain an implicit measure of the activation of both currently and formerly relevant items. In Experiment 2, the span task included an embedded recognition judgment task designed to obtain an explicit measure of both item and source recognition ability. The results of these experiments indicate that low-span individuals do not hold irrelevant information in a more active state in memory than high-span individuals, but rather that low-span individuals are significantly poorer at identifying such information as irrelevant at the time of retrieval. These results suggest that differences in the ability to monitor the source of information, rather than differences in the activation of irrelevant information, are the more important determinant of performance on WM tasks.

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