A task is a task is a task: Putting complex span, n-back, and other working memory indicators in psychometric context

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Based on a meta-analysis, Redick and Lindsey (2013) found that complex span and n-back tasks show an average correlation of r = 0.20, and concluded that "complex span and n-back tasks cannot be used interchangeably as working memory measures in research applications" (p. 1102). Here, we comment on this conclusion from a psychometric perspective. In addition to construct variance, performance on a test contains measurement error, task-specific variance, and paradigm-specific variance. Hence, low correlations among dissimilar indicators do not provide strong evidence for the existence, or absence, of a construct common to both indicators. One way to arrive at such evidence is to fit hierarchical latent factors that model task-specific, paradigm-specific, and construct variance. We report analyses for 101 younger and 103 older adults who worked on nine different working memory tasks. The data are consistent with a hierarchical model of working memory, according to which both complex span and n-back tasks are valid indicators of working memory. The working memory factor predicts 71% of the variance in a factor of reasoning among younger adults (83% for among older adults). When the working memory factor was restricted to any possible triplet of working memory tasks, the correlation between working memory and reasoning was inversely related to the average magnitude of the correlations among the indicators, indicating that more highly intercorrelated indicators may provide poorer coverage of the construct space. We stress the need to go beyond specific tasks and paradigms when studying higher-order cognitive constructs, such as working memory.




Schmiedek, F., Lövdén, M., & Lindenberger, U. (2014). A task is a task is a task: Putting complex span, n-back, and other working memory indicators in psychometric context. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(DEC). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01475

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