2011. Vol.2, No.9, 896-901
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.29135
The Survival Processing Memory Effect Should Generalise to
Source Memory, but It Doesn’t
Arndt Bröder1, Nelli Krüger2, Susanne Schütte2
1Chair of Experimental Psychology, University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany;
2Department of Psychology, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany.
Received September 29th, 2011; revised October 29th, 2011; accepted November 29th, 2011.
Numerous studies have shown that words judged for their relvance to a scenario of survival are remembered
better than words from lists processed differently. Survival processing is even more effective than many mne-
monic techniques. This has been interpreted as an evolutionary design feature of memory. It is argued that such
a survival effect should be even more pronounced in remembering the context or source of the information. Two
experiments used a source monitoring paradigm. Both studies did not find any evidence for enhanced context
memory, thus questioning the evolutionary account of the survival processing effect. An alternative interpreta-
tion is discussed.
Keywords: Survival Processing, Source Memory, Evolutionary Psychology
Since its first demonstration by Nairne, Thompson and
Pandeirada (2007), the “survival processing effect” in memory
has stimulated a great deal of research. In the basic paradigm,
participants of an experimental group judge the relevance of a
list of words with respect to a “survival scenario” in which they
imagine that they were stranded on a foreign grassland without
supplies, and they have to survive for several weeks. In a typi-
cal control condition, the list of words is rated with respect to
another scenario without the survival topic, or they process the
words in various other ways (see Naine & Pandeirada, 2008, for
an overview). The experimental condition usually evokes much
better memory in a surprise recall or recognition test than most
of the control conditions tested until now, even if those use
efficient mnemonic techniques (e.g., pleasantness ratings, im-
agery, item generation, self-reference ratings, or intentional
learning; Nairne, Pandeirada, & Thompson, 2008) or other
interesting or arousing scenarios as a control (Kang, McDer-
mott, & Cohen, 2008; Nairne et al., 2008; Weinstein, Bugg, &
Roediger, 2008).
The discoverers of this powerful survival processing advan-
tage seek an explanation in evolutionary terms: “We propose
that memory evolved to enhance reproductive fitness and, ac-
cordingly, its systems are tuned to retain information that is
fitness-relevant.” (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2008). Further, the
authors claim that a functional analysis based on evolutionary
principles is lacking in most cognitive domains, possibly over-
looking other highly relevant variables that determine cognitive
Several authors claimed that other confounded proximal fac-
tors might trigger the effect, such as the congruity of words to
the scenario (Butler, Kang, & Roediger, 2009), the distinctive-
ness of item processing (Kroneisen & Erdfelder, 2011) or the
emotional arousal produced by survival processing (see e.g.,
Soderstrom & McCabe, 2011, for effects with “zombie” sce-
narios). Nairne and colleagues have countered those criticisms
by claiming that survival effects remain if congruity is con-
trolled (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2011). Also, more exciting alter-
native scenarios (Kang et al., 2008) or scenarios with similar
amounts of distinctiveness (Nairne, Pandeirada, & Thompson,
2008) produced the effect. The purpose of this paper is not to
present another possible confound or mediator of the effect.
Rather, we test a corollary of the adaptive memory hypothesis.
To be of functional importance, we claim that remembering
items per se is not enough. Rather, the context has to be re-
membered in which these items appeared since the context
often determines the item’s relevance. This hypothesis was
already stated in a similar fashion by Nairne et al. (2007, p.
In the following, we will first argue that a survival process-
ing effect should be found in source memory. Then, we present
two experiments in which the source (spatial location) of items
was varied in addition to the scenario of the rating task. Third
we will discuss what the failure to find a survival processing
advantage in source memory means for the evolutionary ac-
count put forward by Nairne and Pandeirada (2008).
Source Memory
The term “source” refers to the temporal and spatial circum-
stances under which a memory was acquired as well as to other
features present in the encoding situation (such as internal
states of or cognitive processes; see Johnson, Hashtroudi, &
Lindsay, 1993). This broad definition is therefore roughly
equivalent to the entire context of learning an item or a piece of
information. In formal theories of memory, episodic memories
are descibed as feature vectors which entail the item informa-
tion as well as some context information (Flexser & Tulving,
1978). Contextual features can therefore act as powerful re-
trieval cues for the target information (Godden & Baddeley,
1975). The capacity for source memory is partly dissociable
from item memory: It suffers more than item memory in amne-
1After we had conducted our experiments, we learned that Nairne et al.
(2010) had investigated a similar hypothesis with apparently similar proce-
dures and results which they presented at the meeting of the Psychonomic
Society in November 2010. We will address this briefly in the General
sia (Shimamura & Squire, 1987) or age-related memory decline
(Spencer & Raz, 1995). Also, experimental manipulations can
affect item memory and source memory idependently (Bayen,
Murnane, & Erdfelder, 1996; Meiser & Bröder, 2002). In their
seminal paper, Johnson et al. (1993) already emphasized that
source monitoring is a complex interaction of retrieval and
inference processes rather than a mere passive retrieval.
Why should source memory be relavant for an evolutionary
account of memory? Although Naine and Pandeirada (2008)
claim that their survival processing effect is compatible with a
functional interpretation, the exact nature of the utility of en-
hanced memory for specific items is somewhat elusive. What
functional relevance per se does it have to rember that I en-
countered a “saw” or a “lion” in a survival-relevant scenario? In
which way does this in itself benefit survival or reproduction?
In our view, remembering the item is only helpful if and only if
I also rember the context in which I encountered it. It is impor-
tant to know where the waterhole is and when deer usualy graze
near the forest. Also, I should know who provided valuable
information and where I can find sticks and stones for making
tools. It is of no particular adaptive value to know that all these
items were encountered, but it is very helpful if the context of
these encounters is remembered. Hence, we predict that the
survival processing effect must also be found in source memory
for items if the evolutionary explanation is correct. Otherwise,
the functional analysis remains incomplete.
In two experiments, we tested this corollary of the adaptive
memory account by employing the usual scenario-based pro-
cedure with the additional variation of the context in which
items appeared. Later, item memory and context memory were
assessed in a recognition test.
Experiment 1
The aim of this experiment was to replicate the survival pro-
cessing effect in item memory and to assess the impact of sur-
vival processing on source memory for the location of the
Three factors were varied. Items in the final source memory
test were either old or new. Old words had been rated before for
their relevance with respect to one of two different scenarios:
the foreign grassland scenario (survival processing) or the fancy
vacation resort scenario (no survival processing). This factor
was manipulated by different instructions which were translated
to German from Nairne et al. (2007). The vacation scenario was
used as a control condition in order to roughly equate richness
and distinctiveness of processing. Finally, the location on the
screen during the learning phase was varied within participants.
The words appeared in one of 16 squares that were arranged in
a large 4 by 4 square on the computer screen.
Materials and Procedure
The 128 words were taken from Nairne et al. (2007; Exp. 3)
and translated to German. They were randomly divided into
two sets of 64 each, one of which was the learning set, the other
was the distractor set for all participants, and both were shuf-
fled in a random order for the relevance ratings. Each of the 64
learning list words was randomly assigned to one of the 16
presentation locations for each participant in such a way that
four words appeared in each position.
Participants were told that they should rate the relevance of a
list of words with respect to a scenario described later. They
were familiarized with the rating scale ranging from 1 “com-
pletely irrelevant” to 5 “highly relevant”. They were asked to
provide each rating within 5 seconds because all words were
presented for the same amount of time. This was done in order
to eliminate processing time as a potential confound. After that,
participants were asked to imagine one of the two scenarios and
to begin with three practice trials with additional words. After
the practice trials, participants could ask for clarification and/or
begin with the rating task which lasted approximately 5 minutes.
Ratings were entered by clicking an appropiate numbered but-
ton at the bottom of the computer screen below the 16 squares
grid in which the word appeared. A 2 minute filler task fol-
lowed in which participants had to judge the result of simple
calculation problems as true or false. Finally, the source mem-
ory test followed. Participants were asked to judge for 128
items whether they were old (formerly rated) or new. They had
to click an appropriate button on the screen. If they clicked
“new”, the next word appeared. If they clicked “old”, a small
version of the 4 by 4 grid appeared on the screen below the
word with the instruction to check the square with the former
position of the word. After the 128 test words had been pre-
sented, partcipants were thanked and debriefed. The experiment
lasted 17 minutes on average.
Fifty students (mostly major psychology) of the University
of Bonn and employed persons participated in the study for
partial course credit (psychology students) or without compen-
sation (others). 43 participants were female, the mean age was
27 years (range 18 - 62).
Although there are several caveats in using traditional source
memory measures to assess source memory (Bröder & Meiser,
2007; Murnane & Bayen, 1996), we chose to report those here
for simplicity. The structure of results is identical to those ob-
tained with an appropriate multinomial 2-High-Threshold source
memory model (Bayen et al., 1996). We will first report the
results on old-new recognition, followed by source memory
Item Memory
Corrected hit rates and false alarm rates according to Snodgrass
and Corwin (1988) are reported in Table 1 along with the cor-
responding d' values for old-new recognition. The sensitivity
indexes d' did not differ significantly between conditions, t(48)
= .54, p = .59, d = .15. Hence, the survival processing effect
was not replicated for item recognition, the estimated effect size
is small. Furthermore, this “effect” is driven entirely by some-
what smaller FARs instead of higher HRs
Source Memory
Since there is no standard procedure for measuring source
memory for 16 different sources, we computed source memory
in analogy to the conditional source identification measure
(Murnane & Bayen, 1996) which is based only on the items
correctly identified as old and therefore does not confound item
memory and source memory under regular conditions. The
percentage of these items with a correct source judgment was
determined for each participant. As Table 2 shows, these meas-
ures did not differ significantly between conditions, t(48) =
–1.4, p = .16, η2 = .04. The descriptive difference is in the
wrong direction. To rule out a potential floor effect, one can
Table 1.
Item memory in Experiment 1.
Item memory
Hit rate FA ratea d'
survival .86 (.12) .06 (.05) 2.85 (0.71)
vacation .86 (.12) .09 (.05) 2.73 (0.85)
both .86 (.13) .08 (.05) 2.79 (0.78)
aFA rate = False Alarms rate.
Table 2.
Source memory in Experiment 1.
Source memory
Cell Quadrant Vertical Horizontal
Survival .10 (.05) .34 (.09) .56 (.06) .63 (.09)
Vacation .13 (.07) .32 (.10) .55 (.08) .61 (.08)
Both .12 (.07) .33 (.09) .56 (.07) .62 (.08)
also use more liberal source memory scoring criteria, for exam-
ple whether the participant chose the correct quadrant of the
display, or the correct half, either in vertical or in horizontal
direction. This would signify partial context memory. Espe-
cially the horizontal location knowledge is well above chance,
but there was no significant difference for any of these more
liberal measures of partial source knowledge between condi-
tions, all t(48) < .90, all p > .35, all η2 < .02.
The hypothesis derived from an evolutionary functional ac-
count of the survival processing advantage received no support
in this study. It was argued that survival processing should
affect source memory in particular since item memory per se
has hardly any survival value without appropriate context
knowledge. Neither exact nor partial source knowledge were
affected, however. This could not be attributed to a floor effect,
at least for the partial source memory measures. Note that
source memory was scored conditional on successful item
memory, so this cannot be a consequence of attenuated source
memory measures.
However, strict conclusions are not warranted since there
was no significant effect on item memory, either. Although we
used the standard procedure for inducing the survival process-
ing effect, it may not have worked in this experiment for any
unknown reason. However, the paradigm has not been used
with a source memory test, yet, and this may have compro-
mised the recognition data. Also, the effects usually tend to be
weaker in recognition than in free recall. In addition, the en-
coding phase with 16 different source may have been too dis-
tracting, or it may have raised participants’ suspicion that a
memory test would follow, thus inducing potential compensa-
tory encoding strategies.
In the second experiment, we therefore used two modifica-
tions: First, we only used two different sources which is the
standard in source monitoring tasks. This should reduce dis-
traction from the scenario instruction. Second, in order to in-
crease the chances of finding a survival effect, we used the
standard “moving scenario” as a control in the second experi-
ment (Nairne et al., 2007). As an additional variation, we used
words and pictures in this study to replicate the findings by
Otgaar et al. (2010) who found the survival processing effect
both for words and pictures. We expected to find a general
picture superiority effect (Paivio, 1991) as well as an inde-
pendent survival processing effect for both verbal and pictorial
Experiment 2
In order to enhance the chances to find a survival processing
effect in item memory, the standard contrast between the sur-
vival scenario and a “moving scenario” was used in which par-
ticipants rate items for relevance with respect to moving to a
new location. Second, pictorial and verbal items were used in a
within subjects variation. Third, only two sources were used,
namely the presentation of items at the top or the bottom of the
screen. Also we increased sample size to achieve a higher sta-
tistical power.
Materials, Design, and Procedure
The information format (picture vs. word) was varied within
participants who were tested individually. 200 simple line
drawings of common objects were taken from Snodgrass and
Vanderwart (1980). A parallel list of words naming these ob-
jects was created. Four counterbalanced learning lists were
created so that each item appeared equally often as an old or
new item, and in word or picture format across participants. In
the encoding phase, each participant saw 100 items for 5 sec-
onds each, 50 of which appeared in the upper half of the screen,
the others in the lower half of the screen. These had to be rated
on a relevance scale from 1 (irrelevant) to 5 (highly relevant)
by verbalizing the numerical response which was documented
by the experimenter. This was done in order to enhance par-
ticipants’ compliance with the task and thus to increase the
chance to elicit a survival processing effect. The participants
were either instructed to rate the stimuli with respect to their
relevance to the typical survival scenario or the moving sce-
nario (see Appendix). After 3 practice trials the rating task be-
gan which lasted about 8:20 Minutes. After that, simple calcu-
lation problems had to be solved on a sheet for two minutes
before the final surprise source memory test was administered.
This test entailed 200 items (old and new words and pictures)
presented in the middle of the computer screen, and participants
noted on a protocol sheet whether the item was “old top”, “old
bottom” or “new”. Finally, the sheets were collected, and par-
ticipants were thanked and debriefed.
64 persons (48 female, mean age = 25.94 years, SD = 5.83)
participated in the study. Most of them (80%) were psychology
students of the University of Bonn who received partial course
credit. The others participated for candy and the chance to win
a book coupon of 10 Euros value.
For item memory, Hit rates and False alarm rates as well as
d' values can be found in Table 3. Subjecting the d' values to a
mixed model ANOVA reveals a massive materials effect, F(1,
62) = 59.46, p < .001, 2
= .49, showing that pictures were
remembered much better than words. However, in contrast to
Experiment 1, there was now also a significant scenario main
effect, F(1, 62) = 4.16, p < .05, 2
= .06. Also, a significant
interaction shows that the scenario effect is larger for words
than pictures, F(1, 62) = 5.33, p = .02, 2
= .08. In fact,
Table 3.
Item and source memory in Experiment 2.
Item memory
Hit rate FA ratea d'
wa .91 (.09) .06 (.06) 3.26 (0.70) .55 (.09)
p .96 (.05) .05 (.04) 3.68 (0.64) .61 (.11)
w .87 (.07) .08 (.07) 2.75 (0.66) .52 (.09)
p .94 (.05) .06 (.06) 3.47 (0.77) .62 (.11)
w .89 (.08) .07 (.06) 3.00 (0.72) .53 (.09)
p .95 (.05) .06 (.05) 3.57 (0.71) .62 (.11)
aw = words, p = pictures.
follow-up analyses show that the main effect is only significant
for words, t(62) = 3.02, p = .002, but not for pictures, t(62) =
1.19, p = .12 (one-tailed).
The number of correct source attributions conditional on
successful item recognition was calculated for all participants.
The source of pictures was remembered much better than the
source of words, F(1, 62) = 44,44, p < .001, 2
= .42. How-
ever, there was neither a main effect of the scenario, F(1, 62) =
0.21, p = .65, 2
= .003, nor an interaction of the factors, F(1,
62) = 1.93, p = .17, 2
= .03. Hence, in source memory, we
found the expected materials effect, but again no effect of sur-
vival processing.
In this experiment, the usual survival processing advantage
could be elicited, although it did not reach significance for pic-
ture stimuli (in contrast to Otgaar et al., 2010). Hence, item
memory was affected in the expected manner. However, again,
there was not even a sign of an effect in source memory. The
massive advantage of pictures over words in item and source
memory was as expected, and it shows that large effects on
these measures can be obtained. Hence, the failure to find a
scenario effect cannot be explained away as a potential insensi-
tivity of the source memory measure. The effect size estimate is
close to zero.
General Discussion
The functional analysis of cognitive processes and memory
can be a fruitful way to generate hypotheses about the inner
workings of the mind (Anderson, 1991; Pinker, 1997). The
advent of evolutionary psychology has generated a host of
fruitful ideas how to understand different aspects of behavior
including cognitive functions (e.g., Buss, 1999; Barrett, Dunbar,
& Lycett, 2002). However, many results that were inspired by
evolutionary hypotheses may be explained by rival hypotheses
(e.g. mating preferences, see the controversy between Buss,
1992 and Eagly & Wood, 1999). Unfortunately, tests are some-
times elusive because many significant variables from the evo-
lutionary point of view are not possible to control experimen-
tally. This is different with Nairne’s and cowokers’ survival
processing effect in which an experimenter-induced mode of
information processing has an effect in line with an evolution-
ary interpretation.
However, as we have outlined in the introduction, we feel
that the functional analysis in the case of the survival process-
ing advantage is incomplete. Different from other constructs
like the hypothesized “cheater detection module” (Cosmides,
1989), the functional value of merely remembering items that
were encountered in a survival-relevant context remains unclear.
What does it pay to know that I encountered a “chair” (or any-
thing else) in a survival-relevant context? Even if we assume
that this should be of some value, we would expect a particular
advantage for relevant as opposed to irrelevant items. However,
Naine and co-workers typically do not find a difference in mean
relevance ratings between remembered and not-remembered
items. For a more sensitive analysis, we computed the individ-
ual point-biserial correlations between the memory status of old
items (miss vs. hit) and the relevance ratings given in the rating
task. The mean correlations in all conditions of our experiments
ranged from –.04 to .01, none of them significantly different
from zero. This independence between relevance and memory
is a problematic finding for the evolutionary explanation of the
survival processing advantage.
Furthermore, we argued that even more than item memory
itself, source memory should be enhanced to be of functional -
or survival—value. Items are helpful only if they can be placed
in a partciular temporo-spatial or social context. It is important
where and when you will find game or fruit. Hence, if the sur-
vival processing advantage were present for item memory and
source memory, a functional interpretation would immediately
gain much face validity. Our results, however, do not even
present a hint of such an effect in source memory, so the evolu-
tionary explanation of the survival processing effect remains
elusive. After we had conducted the experiments, we learned
about similar experiments by Nairne, Pandeirada, Smith, Gri-
maldi, & Bauernschmidt (2010) who also did not find survival
processing advantages for source memory, however.
Of course, these two studies cannot be viewed as definitive.
Although we would argue that the location of items should be
their most important contextual aspect in a survival setting, our
manipulation of this feature was obviously not “ecologically
valid” in the sense of a resemblance to actual survival situations.
On the other hand, this resemblance is also absent in judging
lists of words. Nevertheless, the advantage occurs in this setting.
Hence, the effect in item memory reflects some general design
feature of memory which is also elicited in artificial situations.
If this is true, however, we do not see why this should not be
the case for context dimensions. However, perhaps more “rep-
resentative” variations of context features may be used in fol-
low-up studies.
Another apparent problem with our studies is the acceptance
of the null hypothesis which is not recommended by some sci-
entists (Wilkinson et al., 1999). The lack of a significant effect
is often mistrusted. However, if the significance levels are cho-
sen in a more liberal way to equate α and β error in a compro-
mise power analysis (assuming medium effect sizes according
to Cohen, 1988), there is still no evidence for an effect. Hence,
the data for all source memory measures in both studies are
more likely under the null hypothesis than under the alternative
hypothesis of an at least medium-sized effect. Also, the esti-
mated effect sizes are close to zero in both studies.
In the meantime, there have been other results with the sur-
vival processing paradigm which are hard to reconcile with an
evolutionary account. For example, Otgaar and Smeets (2010)
as well as Howe and Derbish (2010) have found increased rates
of false memories in the DRM paradigm under survival proc-
essing conditions. The fitness value of this phenomenon is at
least not obvious.
In sum, our results add to some evidence which questions the
evolutionary explanation of the survival processing advantage.
If this trend continues, it will be worthwhile for researchers to
address the potential proximate or mediating mechanisms
which might be responsible for this powerful effect. Kroneisen
(2010) has collected several candidates, for example the rich-
ness or the distinctiveness of encoding in the survival scenario.
It is well conceivable that the imagery of different items in a
foreign grassland scenario may lead to more diverse processing
or bizarre imagery than in a moving scenario. Second, a sur-
vival scenario may simply be more exciting and arousing than
other contexts, provoking better memory. Given that the fancy
vacation scenario in Experiment 1 is also much more exciting
than the moving scenario used in Experiment 2 and the original
studies, the missing effect on item memory in the first experi-
ment would be easily explained. Third, there may be a valence
effect because the survival scenario is inherently threatening,
leading to a “threat bias” as compared to more neutral or posi-
tive scenarios (De Bruin & Van Lange, 1999; Peeters &
Czapinski, 1990). This latter effect is itself subject to an evolu-
tionary explanation, and it might be the more fundamental
mechanism which operates behind the survival processing ad-
vantage. Better memory for details of arousing situations may
also be an adaptive feature of memory. Even more, all three
(and perhaps more) factors may interact in a particularly effi-
cient manner to produce this fascinating effect.
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Instructions for participants in Experiment 2 (translated from
Survival scenario:
“In this study, I ask you to imagine that you are stranded in
the savannah of an unknown country without any vital com-
modities. During the months to come you must find food and
water, and you have to protect yourself from predators.
We will now present a series of words and pictures. You
should judge for every item how relevant it would be in such a
situation. Some items may be relevant, others may not be rele-
vant. That is up to your judgment.”
Moving scenario:
“In this study, I ask you to imagine that you plan to move to
another country into a new house. During the months to come
you must find and purchase a new house and transfer your be-
longings to the new place.
We will now present a series of words and pictures. You
should judge for every item how relevant it would be in such a
situation. Some items may be relevant, others may not be rele-
vant. That is up to your judgment.”