Experts’ memory superiority for domain-specific random material generalizes across fields of expertise: A meta-analysis

Giovanni Sala, Fernand Gobet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


Experts’ remarkable ability to recall meaningful domain-specific material is a classic result in cognitive psychology. Influential explanations for this ability have focused on the acquisition of high-level structures (e.g., schemata) or experts’ capability to process information holistically. However, research on chess players suggests that experts maintain some reliable memory advantage over novices when random stimuli (e.g., shuffled chess positions) are presented. This skill effect cannot be explained by theories emphasizing high-level memory structures or holistic processing of stimuli, because random material does not contain large structures nor wholes. By contrast, theories hypothesizing the presence of small memory structures—such as chunks—predict this outcome, because some chunks still occur by chance in the stimuli, even after randomization. The current meta-analysis assessed the correlation between level of expertise and recall of random material in diverse domains. The overall correlation was moderate but statistically significant (r¯=.41,p<.001), and the effect was observed in nearly every study. This outcome suggests that experts partly base their superiority on a vaster amount of small memory structures, in addition to high-level structures or holistic processing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-193
Number of pages11
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 01-02-2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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