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Motivation can improve performance when the potential rewards outweigh the cost of effort expended. In working memory (WM), people can prioritise rewarded items at the expense of unrewarded items, suggesting a fixed memory capacity. But can capacity itself change with motivation? Across four experiments (N = 30-34) we demonstrate motivational improvements in WM even when all items were rewarded. However, this was not due to better memory precision, but rather better selection of the probed item within memory. Motivational improvements operated independently of encoding, maintenance, or attention shifts between items in memory. Moreover, motivation slowed responses. This contrasted with the benefits of rewarding items unequally, which allowed prioritisation of one item over another. We conclude that motivation can improve memory recall, not via precision or capacity, but via speed-accuracy trade-offs when selecting the item to retrieve.

Original publication




Journal article


Cogn Psychol

Publication Date





Motivation, Retrieval, Reward, Short-term memory, Working memory