Psychological Science Faculty Publications and Presentations

Why Are Trial-by-Trial, Strength-Based Criterion Shifts Hard to Observe? Is the Difficulty in the Mental Process Itself or in the Typical Cued Criterion Method?

Document Type


Publication Date



In the cued criterion recognition paradigm (Stretch & Wixted, 1998b), trial-by-trial memory strength-based criterion shifts have been an elusive phenomenon. Often the criterion shifts do not occur. We suggest that the frequent failure in making criterion shifts in the literature is caused by participants’ failure to understand the rationale of the task as typically presented in an abstract format. In this study, participants studied words once or thrice and were asked at test to either classify the probes into “new,” “seen once,” or “seen 3 times” categories by pressing the corresponding keys or to make an old/new binary decision followed by an item presentation frequency, confidence, or a memory quality judgment. No memory strength cues were provided, and only one set of new items served as distractors for strong and weak targets. Robust trial-by-trial criterion shift was observed. We concluded that no cues distinguishing between strong and weak probes are necessary for obtaining this type of criterion shift when the tasks are designed to make good pragmatic sense for the participants. The reason why this type of criterion shift is typically hard to obtain in the cued criterion paradigm is not that the process itself is difficult but that the cued criterion method is hard for the participants to understand.


Copyright 2020 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois

Publication Title

The American Journal of Psychology