When old–new recognition judgments must be based on ambiguous memory evidence, a proper criterion for responding “old” can substantially improve accuracy, but participants are typically suboptimal in their placement of decision criteria. Various accounts of suboptimal criterion placement have been proposed. The most parsimonious, however, is that subjects simply over-rely on memory evidence – however faulty – as a basis for decisions. We tested this account with a novel recognition paradigm in which old–new discrimination was minimal and critical errors were avoided by adopting highly liberal or conservative biases. In Experiment 1, criterion shifts were necessary to adapt to changing target probabilities or, in a “security patrol” scenario, to avoid either letting dangerous people go free (misses) or harming innocent people (false alarms). Experiment 2 added a condition in which financial incentives drove criterion shifts. Critical errors were frequent, similar across sources of motivation, and only moderately reduced by feedback. In Experiment 3, critical errors were only modestly reduced in a version of the security patrol with no study phase. These findings indicate that participants use even transparently non-probative information as an alternative to heavy reliance on a decision rule, a strategy that precludes optimal criterion placement.
Kantner, J., Vettel, J. M., & Miller, M. B. (2015). Dubious decision evidence and criterion flexibility in recognition memory. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01320