Forgetting

Our brain is constantly rewiring itself. The information that is no longer important is forgotten so that new information can be learned. Forgetting is a necessary process for our brain to be able to adapt to the environment as quickly as possible. But what makes us forget some information more than others? What is the mechanism of forgetting? These are the questions we will answer by discussing different theories of forgetting in psychology.

Forgetting Forgetting

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Contents
Table of contents

    Forgetting, Elderly man with a speech bubble with a question mark above his head sitting in a living room with an incomplete jigsaw of human head watermarked as a background, StudySmarterForgetting is a memory process that occurs when someone is no longer able to retrieve an old memory, freepik.com/storyset

    • First, we will consider what the meaning of forgetting in psychology is.
    • We will then establish what the different types of forgetting in psychology are.
    • Moving along, we will discuss different theories of forgetting in psychology.
    • Then, we will look at the possible causes of forgetting in psychology.
    • Finally, the features of natural forgetting in psychology will be described.

    What is the Meaning of Forgetting in Psychology?

    Forgetting occurs when we are unable to recall information that was previously stored in memory. Forgetting can affect information stored in the long-term, short-term or sensory memory systems.

    For example, let's say you had an argument with one of your classmates when you were seven. The content of that argument used to be encoded and stored in your memory. However, over time you might have lost the ability to remember what the argument was about or maybe even what the name of your classmate was. This is an example of forgetting information stored in long-term memory.

    Now let's look at an example of forgetting information stored in short-term memory. Your friend calls you to tell you what time she wants to meet you later. Even though you were listening, you immediately forget what she just said and have to call her back to confirm.

    Types of Forgetting in Psychology

    Ebbinghaus was one of the first researchers to look at the mechanisms of forgetting. Ebbinghaus's forgetting curve theory describes that when we first develop a new memory, within the first couple of days, details of the memory are easily forgotten. After some time, the rate of forgetting levels off, allowing us to retain some initially learned information.

    Let's say you took a course to learn another language. Your memory of the language will rapidly decline once you stop learning and practising. After a few weeks, you might find yourself only remembering a few words and phrases. However, because forgetting levels off with time, you might be able to retain a few phrases even after a few years.

    Forgetting long-term memories is likely caused by different mechanisms to forgetting short-term memories. The decay theory proposes that forgetting occurs when a memory is lost due to forgetting over time. In contrast, the interference and retrieval failure theories propose that memory may be irretrievable because a memory was not moved from the short-term to the long-term memory system. This may be because the short-term memory system has a limited capacity and duration.

    Theories of Forgetting in Psychology

    We will now describe the key mechanisms of forgetting proposed by different theories.

    Displacement

    Displacement occurs when information stored in short-term memory is forgotten and lost. This occurs due to the capacity limits of short-term memory. We can only store 5-9 chunks of information in the short-term memory store, any information beyond it will be either displaced (forgotten) or transferred to long-term memory if elaborately rehearsed.

    Displacement is demonstrated by the recency effect found in the study of Glanzer and Cunitz (1966). Researchers asked participants to remember a long list of words and then recall as many of the words in any order. Participants were asked to either recall the list straight away or after completing a 30-second distraction task.

    The results of the study showed that participants were more likely to recall words shown at the start of the list (primacy effect) and those at the end of the list (recency effect). Participants who took part in the distraction condition did not show as much evidence of the recency effect compared to those who did not take part in the condition. This may have occurred because the distraction task may have resulted in displacing the words from the list.

    Decay

    The theory of trace decay proposes that memories that are not strengthened decay over time. Memories are imprinted in neural pathways, which can be called memory engrams. Over time the pathways which have not been active in a while become weaker. As the pathway fades, it can become more difficult to access the memory, or it may disappear completely. In contrast, pathways which are strengthened by repetition become stronger, and the memory is easier to access.

    This theory focuses on the impact of time on forgetting. The more time passed between memory formation and retrieval, the weaker the memory trace becomes. Therefore, the memory is likely to be forgotten. The issue with this theory is that it is difficult to test empirically. Testing memory usually relies on self-report techniques or tests, although imaging techniques are often also used. Memory tests' reliability and validity are often raised, and these cannot measure memory traces.

    Interference

    Interference occurs when we cannot remember the target memory because of other similar information that interferes with accessing it. Interference occurs because the cues associated with the target memory (the one you want to access) have also become associated with other similar memories.

    Proactive interference occurs when you forget a memory because the target memory encoded is similar to previous old memories stored in the long-term memory store. So, past memories interfere with the new memories.

    Underwood (1957) found that research investigating similar words was less likely to be recalled. Proactive interference can explain these results. Participants may find it difficult to retrieve the words because the new memory may be confused with previous memories.

    Retroactive interference occurs when previous memories are disrupted due to the acquirement of new, similar information.

    Baddeley and Hitch (1977) asked rugby players to recall the names of the teams they had played against in the season. Players' memory of a particular team they had played against was worse the more games they played. Participants who played more games were worse at recalling their competitor's team names. The results suggest that learning new information was disrupted by older memories. In essence, this is retroactive interference.

    Forgetting, Women sitting on the floor with laptop trying to think whilst looking at a large question mark by her side, StudySmarterInterference makes it difficult to access the memory you wish to remember. The memory is not lost but difficult to access, freepik.com/jcomp

    Retrieval failure

    Retrieval is the process of remembering. Retrieval failure occurs when we are unable to access stored information because of a lack of cues. This theory proposes that the forgotten information is still in our memory, but we need some additional help to be able to remember it. Recall can be facilitated by appropriate external or internal cues that help us access the target memory.

    When retrieval failure occurs due to the lack of appropriate external cues, we refer to it as context-dependent forgetting. Memories are associated with many contextual factors that were present at the time when we encoded them. These contextual factors can include what we saw, what we heard, or how we felt. The presence of the same contextual factors at retrieval may therefore be helpful for accessing and activating the target memory.

    For example, if you prepared for an exam at home but wrote the exam at school, the difference in context between the place of encoding and retrieval might make it difficult for you to access the knowledge you have learned.

    In the study of Godden and Baddeley (1975), divers learned word pairs either while in the water or on the land. They performed best at recalling the word pairs when tested in the same environment where they learned them. Similarly, Grant et al. (1998) found that students who learned information in a noisy environment performed better in a quiet environment and students who learned in a quiet environment performed better in a quiet one.

    These studies highlight the importance of external context cues in supporting information retrieval.

    Forgetting, three students taking an exam in a classroom whilst a teacher watches them, StudySmarterAccording to research, students will perform better in exams when the exam conditions match the environment that they revised in, freepik.com/pch.vector

    State-dependent forgetting occurs due to the difference between your internal state at encoding and retrieval.

    For example, let's say you were feeling calm and relaxed when learning the material, but at the time of being tested, you feel stressed and anxious. This mismatch in your internal state might make it more difficult for you to access the knowledge you have learned.

    Carter & Cassaday (1998) tested participants' performance on different memory tasks. During the encoding stage, half of the participants were given an antihistamine drug (with sedative effects), and half were given a placebo. They found that participants performed best if their internal state at encoding matched the one at retrieval. Participants that learnt the information while sedated performed better when sedated, and participants that were given a placebo at encoding performed better on memory tasks when unaffected by the antihistamine.

    The fact that it is easier for us to recall memories that match our current mood can also explain why only difficult memories come to mind when you are feeling depressed.

    Causes of forgetting in psychology

    There are different possible causes of forgetting that can affect memory at different stages of its life. First, if a memory is not transferred from short-term to long-term memory, it will be quickly lost; this process is called displacement.

    Once the memory is transferred to long-term memory, its trace may fade and decay over time, as proposed by the trace decay theory of forgetting. The memories become weaker and eventually are lost, and therefore we cannot remember them anymore.

    Natural Forgetting in Psychology

    Learning is a dynamic process, and forgetting is a natural part of it. Natural forgetting might be annoying at times, but it's generally unproblematic. It can be considered a natural form of neuroplasticity, a consequence of our brain rewiring and adapting to the environment. As we discussed, this kind of natural forgetting can occur due to decay, interference or lack of appropriate cues.

    However, in some cases like Alzheimer's disease or amnesia, forgetting can be a sign of pathology. These conditions are associated with brain damage that impairs our long-term memory to a greater extent than normal forgetting does.

    Anterograde amnesia, a condition characterised by an inability to form new memories, involves damage to the hippocampus. Hippocampal damage is also seen in Alzheimer's diseases. However, retrograde amnesia, which involves an inability to recall past events, is often associated with frontal lobe damage.

    Forgetting - Key takeaways

    • Forgetting occurs when we are unable to recall information that was previously stored in memory. Forgetting can affect both information stored in long-term memory, short-term memory and sensory memory.
    • Types of forgetting include displacement, decay, interference, and retrieval failure.

      • Displacement occurs when information in short-term memory is not transferred to long-term memory and becomes lost over time.

      • Decay occurs when information in long-term memory fades or becomes lost over time.

      • Interference occurs when we cannot access a memory because other similar memories are interfering with retrieval.

      • Retrieval failure occurs when we cannot access a memory because we don't have enough cues.

    • Forgetting can be caused either by loss of the memory or an inability to access the memory.


    References

    1. Glanzer, M., & Cunitz, A. R. (1966). Two storage mechanisms in free recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior.
    2. Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: on land and underwater. British Journal of psychology.
    3. Grant, H. M., et al. (1999). Context-dependent memory for meaningful material: information for students. Applied Cognitive Psychology.
    4. Carter, S. J., & Cassaday, H. J. (1998). State-dependent retrieval and chlorpheniramine. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental.
    5. Underwood, B. J. (1957). Interference and forgetting. Psychological Review.
    6. Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (1977). Recency Reexamined.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Forgetting

    What is forgetting in psychology?

    Forgetting occurs when we cannot recall information previously stored in memory. 

    How many types of forgetting are there in psychology 

    There are four types of forgetting: displacement, decay, interference, and retrieval failure.

    What is memory and forgetting in psychology?

    Memory refers to the mental maintenance of information over time, and forgetting occurs when we lose the ability to retrieve previously stored information. 

    Can forgetting be motivated?

    Forgetting can be motivated. Unwanted memories can be forgotten by either conscious or unconscious suppression.

    Why do I forget things immediately after thinking of them? 

    If you immediately forget information, this is due to displacement. The memory was lost from the short-term store and failed to be transferred to the long-term store.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    During which stage of memory, does memory recall happen?

    Which of the following matches the following description, “people are more likely to remember the last thing that they learned”?

    Which of the following technique matches the following example, “DSM-IV stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition”?

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