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What is the Paired Associates test?
What is the Paired Associates test?
Mike Battista avatar
Written by Mike Battista
Updated over a week ago

Close your eyes. Can you remember where every object in the room is?

A set of boxes will appear on the screen. The boxes will open one after the other to reveal the object inside. You must remember which object appeared in which box. Next, the objects will be displayed one after the other in the centre of the screen. When this happens, you must click on the box that contained that object. 

Optimizing Performance

In this test:

  • Accuracy does matter; after three errors, the test ends. However, wrong answers do not subtract from your score, which is the maximum number of objects you can correctly remember.

  • Speed does not matter; the objects appear quickly, but you have as long as you'd like to answer. It might be hard to remember if you wait too long though!

So to get maximum points, pay careful attention when you are shown the location of each object, and reach the highest number of objects you can possibly remember.  

Performance tips:

  • Like with other spatial memory tests, "chunking" can help with performance.

  • If you can think of several objects as a meaningful group, with a meaningful relationship in space (e.g. a house with a car in the driveway), it may be easier to remember where they are.

  • Experiment with your own strategies. There are a lot of cues to mix and match: object, location, colour, order, and more. Have fun with it and see what helps and what doesn't. 

Domain Scores

Your score on this test contributes to:

  • Your short-term memory score (a lot).

  • Your verbal ability score (a bit).

The contribution of each test to each performance category is based on a "factor analysis" that looked at how tests tend to clump together when measuring a massive set of data. The results were published in Neuron in 2012 (Hampshire, Highfield, Parkin, & Owen, 2012). The exact contribution of each test to each performance category may change as more data is collected.

The Science Behind Paired Associates

Psychologists call the skills required for this test "paired-associate-learning," as you are required to learn to pair two items in memory—in this case the type of object and the location of the object. When one of the paired features is revealed (in this case, the object), you have to remember its associate (in this case, the location it is hidden in).

Along with our colleagues at the University of Cambridge and at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, we investigated which areas of the brain become active when performing this task. Our results show that increased activation occurs in the lateral and medial frontoparietal and occipital regions of the brain (Gould et al., 2005). Therefore, when performing this task, we expect the activity in your brain to look something like this:

Furthermore, we studied what happens to this activation pattern when the task gets harder and harder. The results showed that, rather than additional brain regions becoming active with increased difficulty, activation in many of the same regions increases (Gould et al., 2003). This is one demonstration of how the brain copes with increasingly difficult problems.

Paired Associates in the Real World

Our version of Paired Associates has some direct analogies with real-world tasks. Who hasn't stuffed assorted objects into boxes, thrown the boxes in the basement, then had to remember where a specific object was later?

The more general concept of paired-associate learning goes beyond objects in boxes, however. Any time you have to pair two items in memory, you are relying on paired-associated learning.

This type of learning is essential in everyday life. For example, when learning new words, not only do you learn the word itself, but you have to pair the word with the meaning it represents. That could be why Paired Associates is related not only to your memory domain, but to verbal ability as well. 


Gould, R.L., Brown, R.G., Owen, A. M., Bullmore, E.T., Williams, S. C. R., & Howard, R.J. (2005). Functional neuroanatomy of successful paired associate learning in Alzheimer's disease. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162(11), 2049-2060.

Gould, R.L., Brown, R.G., Owen, A. M., ffytche, D.H., & Howard, R.J. (2003). fMRI BOLD response to increasing task difficulty during successful paired associates learning. Neuroimage, 20(2), 1006-1019.

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