Evaluating recall error in preschoolers: Category expectations influence episodic memory for color

Kimele Persaud, Carla Macias, Pernille Hemmer, Elizabeth Bonawitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite limited memory capacity, children are exceptional learners. How might children engage in meaningful learning despite limited memory systems? Past research suggests that adults integrate category knowledge and noisy episodic traces to aid recall when episodic memory is noisy or incomplete (e.g. Hemmer & Steyvers, 2009a,b). We suspect children utilize a similar process but integrate category and episodic traces in recall to a different degree. Here we conduct two experiments to empirically assess children's color category knowledge (Study 1) and recall of target hue values (Study 2). In Study 1, although children's generated hue values appear to be noisier than adults, we found no significant difference between children and adult's generated color category means (prototypes), suggesting that preschool-aged children's color categories are well established. In Study 2, we found that children's (like adult's) free recall of target hue values regressed towards color category means. We implemented three probabilistic memory models: one that combines category knowledge and specific target information (Integrative), a category only (Noisy Prototype) model, and a target only (Noisy Target) model to computationally evaluate recall performance. Consistent with previous studies with older children (Duffy, Huttenlocher, & Crawford, 2006), quantitative fits of the models to aggregate group-level data provided strong support for the Integrative process. However, at the individual subject level, a greater proportion of preschoolers’ recall was better fit by a Prototype only model. Our results provide evidence that the integration of category knowledge in episodic memory comes online early and strongly. Implications for how the greater reliance on category knowledge by preschoolers relative to adults might track with developmental shifts in relational episodic memory are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101357
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - Feb 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


  • Cognitive development
  • Color categories
  • Episodic memory
  • Prior category knowledge
  • Probabilistic models
  • Relational memory

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