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Retrospective Cue Benefits in Visual Working Memory are Limited to a Single Item at a Time
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Working memory (WM) performance can be improved by an informative cue presented during storage. This effect, termed a retrocue benefit, can be used to study limits on how human observers select and prioritize information stored in WM for behavioral output. There is disagreement about whether retrocue benefits extend to multiple WM items. One possibility is that relative to no- or neutral-cue trials multiple retrocues improve some aspects of memory performance (e.g., a reduction in random guessing) while worsening others (e.g., an increase in the probability of reporting a non-probed item). We tested this possibility in three experiments. Participants remembered arrays of four orientations or colors over a brief delay. One, two, or all four of these items were retrospectively cued, and at the end of the trial a single item was probed for recall. Participants’ recall errors were lower during cue-one relative to cue-two and cue-four trials, and this benefit was driven primarily by a reduction in random guessing during cue-one trials. Moreover, recall precision, swap errors (i.e., reporting a non-probed item), and guessing rates were statistically indistinguishable across cue-two and cue-four trials. Thus, multiple simultaneously presented retrospective cues led to no performance improvement relative to an uninformative cue, providing further evidence that retrocue benefits in WM performance are limited to a single item at a time.