The mechanisms of working memory capacity: Primary memory, secondary memory, and attention control

Zach Shipstead, Dakota R B Lindsey, Robyn L. Marshall, Randall W. Engle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

258 Scopus citations


Working memory capacity is traditionally treated as a unitary construct that can be explained using one cognitive mechanism (e.g., storage, attention control). Several recent studies have, however, demonstrated that multiple mechanisms are needed to explain individual differences in working memory capacity. The present study focuses on three such mechanisms: Maintenance/disengagement in primary memory, retrieval from secondary memory, and attention control. Structural equation modeling reveals that each of these mechanisms is important to explaining individual differences in working memory capacity. Further analyses reveal that the degree to which these mechanisms are apparent may be driven by the type of task used to operationalize working memory capacity. Specifically, complex span (processing and storage) and visual arrays (change detection) performance is strongly related to a person's attention control, while running memory span (memory for last n items on a list) performance has a relationship to primary memory that is apparent above-and-beyond other working memory tasks. Finally, regardless of the working memory task that is used, it is found that primary and secondary memory fully explain the relationship of working memory capacity to general fluid intelligence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)116-141
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 2014


  • Attention
  • General fluid intelligence
  • Maintenance
  • Retrieval
  • Working memory capacity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


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