A test of parallel versus serial processing applied to memory retrieval

Brian H. Ross, John R. Anderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Townsend has identified necessary and sufficient conditions that reaction time distributions meet if they are produced by two underlying processes that are parallel and within-stage independent. This paper describes an attempt to use one of these conditions to assess the assumption of independent parallel memory retrieval in Anderson's ACT theory. In the experimental test, subjects studied profession-location pairs, with each profession and location included in two pairs. One pair had a high frequency of presentation and the other had low. When cued with a profession (or location), subjects responded with the first of the two studied locations (or professions) that came to mind. The reaction times to these responses were used to test the ACT assumption of independent parallel search. The problems encountered in trying to apply Townsend's abstract test to a concrete situation included the need to consider mixtures and convolutions of distributions and empirical, rather than theoretical, distributions. These difficulties are discussed at length and some formal analyses concerning their effect on the test are given. Despite these problems, we were able to use Townsend's test and the results of the experiment support the within-stage independent parallel assumption of ACT.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)183-223
Number of pages41
JournalJournal of Mathematical Psychology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 1981

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology
  • Applied Mathematics


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