Skip to content

What limits working memory capacity?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)758-799
Number of pages42
JournalPsychonomic Bulletin and Review
Issue number7
Early online date7 Mar 2016
DateAccepted/In press - 15 Dec 2015
DateE-pub ahead of print - 7 Mar 2016
DatePublished (current) - Jul 2016


We review the evidence for the three principal theoretical contenders that vie to explain why and how working memory capacity is limited. We examine the possibility that capacity limitations arise from temporal decay; we examine whether they might reflect a limitation in cognitive resources; and we ask whether capacity might be limited because of mutual interference of representations in working memory. We evaluate each hypothesis against a common set of findings reflecting the capacity limit: The set-size effect and its modulation by domain-specificity and heterogeneity of the memory set; the effects of unfilled retention intervals and of distractor processing in the retention interval; and the pattern of correlates of working-memory tests. We conclude that---at least for verbal memoranda---a decay explanation is untenable. A resource-based view remains tenable but has difficulty accommodating several findings. The interference approach has its own set of difficulties but accounts best for the set of findings, and therefore appears to present the most promising approach for future development.

    Structured keywords

  • Memory

    Research areas

  • working memory, decay, resources, interference, individual differences

Download statistics

No data available



  • Full-text PDF (accepted author manuscript)

    Rights statement: The final publication is available at Springer via

    Accepted author manuscript, 1 MB, PDF document

    Licence: Unspecified


View research connections

Related faculties, schools or groups