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Seven-year-olds allocate attention like adults unless working memory is overloaded


Nelson Cowan, Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, 217 McAlester Hall, Columbia, MO 65211, USA; e-mail:


Previous studies have indicated that visual working memory performance increases with age in childhood, but it is not clear why. One main hypothesis has been that younger children are less efficient in their attention; specifically, they are less able to exclude irrelevant items from working memory to make room for relevant items. We examined this hypothesis by measuring visual working memory capacity under a continuum of five attention conditions. A recognition advantage was found for items to be attended as opposed to ignored. The size of this attention-related effect was adult-like in young children with small arrays, suggesting that their attention processes are efficient even though their working memory capacity is smaller than that of older children and adults. With a larger working memory load, this efficiency in young children was compromised. The efficiency of attention cannot be the sole explanation for the capacity difference.