Semantic knowledge influences whether novel episodic associations are represented symmetrically or asymmetrically

Vencislav Popov, Qiong Zhang, Griffin E. Koch, Regina C. Calloway, Marc N. Coutanche

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


We provide new evidence concerning two opposing views of episodic associations: The independent-association hypothesis posits that associations are unidirectional and separately modifiable links (A→B and A←B); in contrast, the associative-symmetry hypothesis proposes that a single, bidirectional association exists between A and B (A↔B). We used a novel method to demonstrate that whether or not episodic associations are symmetric depends on whether there is a preexisting semantic relationship between A and B. In two experiments, participants studied 30 semantically unrelated and 30 semantically related pairs intermixed in a single list and then performed a series of up to eight cued-recall test cycles. All pairs were tested in each cycle, and the testing direction (A–? or B–?) alternated between cycles. Unrelated pairs exhibited associative symmetry—that is, accuracy and response times improved gradually on each test—suggesting that testing in both directions strengthened the same association. In contrast, semantically related pairs exhibited a stair-like pattern, in which performance did not change from odd to even tests when the test direction changed; it only improved between tests in the same direction. We concluded that episodic associations can have either a single bidirectional representation or separate directional representations, depending on the semantic relatedness of their constituent items.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1567-1581
Number of pages15
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 1 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


  • Associative symmetry
  • Cued recall
  • Episodic memory
  • Semantic relations


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