Altmann's memory-for-goals model models goal-directed cognition in terms of the general memory constructs of activation and associative priming (Altmann 2002). From reading the paper I understand the model predicts response times during very low-level subgoal switching, like intermediate steps when solving a tower of Hanoi.

I have seen this paper being referenced by many multitasking and interruption studies within the field of Human-Computer Interaction (e.g., Adler, 2012). These types of studies are generally interested in more real-world knowledge work, such as interrupted office work by telephone calls where one's attention needs to be directed to the incoming call.

I'm skeptical as to whether this model and implementations of it using ACT-R (Anderson et al. 2004) is applicable to such higher-level knowledge work. Some of its implications seem relevant, like the problem state bottleneck. Are there any grounds for assuming the two are related?


Altmann, E. M., & Trafton, J. G. (2002). Memory for goals: An activation-based model. Cognitive science, 26(1), 39-83.
Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 70(2), 156-168.
Anderson, J. R., Bothell, D., Byrne, M. D., Douglass, S., Lebiere, C., & Qin, Y. (2004). An integrated theory of the mind. Psychological review, 111(4), 1036.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Trafton, Altmann, Brock & Mintz (2002) may be of interest. $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 6:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Jeff I believe I actually read that one, but didn't realize Altmann was also one of the authors. Will read it again with more care, thanks! $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Commented Jan 20, 2015 at 10:57

1 Answer 1


Short answer: Altmann's model is hierarchical and allows for "higher-level" goals and "lower-level" goals, but a goal is ultimately a goal―higher level goals are just sets of lower level goals, at least as far as I understand it. Given its ability to predict performance on solid laboratory tasks like the Tower of Hanoi, there is no reason to think that goal-activation/memory-for-goals theory wouldn't apply to "higher-level" multitasking.

Altmann's theory does not appear to be implemented in ACT-R. The relationship between the two instead appears to be that Altmann borrowed ACT-R's forgetting function for his model.

Longer answer: Goal-activation theory relates to real-world work in the sense that real-world work often requires juggling multiple goals. Such higher-level multitasking often requires the worker to temporarily stop working towards a goal in order to pursue another. Goal-activation theory helps explain this by accounting for this inhibition of the ongoing task and shifting to the new task. In order to do so, the worker must encode, store and retrieve different goals from memory depending on contextual salience and retrieval history.

The paper Jeff quotes in his comment, by Trafton, Altmann, Brock & Mintz (2002), proposed two mechanisms for how different goals reach the top of the goal pile and actually become activated: prospective goal encoding and retrospective rehearsal. Both rely on the effect of retrieval practice, and possibly (but not explicitly stated) retrieval-induced forgetting.

Participants were either interrupted during a task with no warning or an 8-second warning prior to interruption. They found that participants in the warning condition were able to improve their responses to interruption. This suggests that the goal-activation model's ability to explain inhibitory performance on Tower of Hanoi can be generalized to real world tasks.

(As an aside: Methodologically speaking, the Tower of Hanoi in particular is a generally well validated task for measuring executive inhibition across task domains. It has an impressive clinical/practical empirical pedigree that is readily available by, for instance, forward searching Miyake et al. (2000). I don't see why performance on a Tower of Hanoi task would be considered "low-level" or meaningfully different from "real-world knowledge work," at least in terms of aspects that might relate to goal-activation.)



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