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How the Memorability of Events Affects Frequency Judgments

Frederick G. Conrad, Norman R. Brown, and Erin R. Cashman


In this study we examine the influence of event regularity and distinctiveness on the strategies and time used to answer ten behavioral frequency questions. Telephone interviewers asked 106 respondents, drawn from a national sample, to report a frequency for each event (behavior), describe their thinking, and then rate the events for regularity and similarity. Four major response strategies emerged and each was associated with events of different regularity and distinctiveness: event enumeration, rate estimation, known-rate responding, and impression-based responding. Event enumeration and rate estimation were associated with irregularly occurring and distinctive events; known-rate and impression-based responding were observed for more regularly occurring and similar events. Evidence that distinct processes are involved comes from a relationship between the reported frequency and the time to produce that report for the first two strategies, but not for the second two. Retrieving and enumerating events takes more time as the number of events increases; the time required to recall a known rate or form an impression should not vary with event frequency. Enumeration versus known-rate responding was also evident for frequency reports of zero. The results dramatize the consequences of event characteristics for how frequency reports are produced.