Cue-dependent forgetting

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Cue-dependent forgetting, or retrieval failure, is the failure to recall information without memory cues.[1] The term either pertains to Semantic cues, State-dependent cues or Context-dependent cues.

Semantic cues[edit]

When we do a simple search for files in our computer its memory is scanned for words. Relevant files containing this word or string of words does then show up. This is not how the memory in our mind works. Instead information stored in the memory is retrieved by way of association with other memories. Some memories can not be recalled by simply thinking about them. Rather you must think about something associated with it.

Let us say someone tries to recollect the memories he had about a vacation he went on. It does not work. Then someone mentions the fact that he was during this vacation hired a classic car. This makes him remember all sorts of things from that trip. Such as what he ate there, where he went and what books he read.

An experiment from 1966 showed that you remember a group of words better if they are within the same theme category. Such words that generate recall by association are known as semantic cues.[2] If the sound of the word is emphasized during the encoding process, a cue that could be used could also put emphasis on the phonetic quality of the word.[3]

State-dependent cues[edit]

State-dependent cues are governed by the state of mind and being at the time of encoding. The emotional or mental state of the person, such as being inebriated, drugged, upset, anxious or happy are key cues.[4]

Context-dependent cues[edit]

Research suggests there is also Context-dependent cues which is dependent on environment and situation.[5] In an experiment conducted in 1975 deep sea divers were divided into two groups. Each group had the same list of 36 unrelated words to learn. But one of the groups learned it 15 feet underwater, and the other on land. Both groups then had recall those words underwater as well as on land. The divers who had learnt the words on land recalled 38 % when tested on land and 21 % when under water. Those who had learnt the words under water recalled 21 % on the beach and 32 % when under water.

Memory retrieval can be facilitated or triggered by replication of the context in which the memory was encoded. Such conditions include weather, company, location, smell of a particular odor, hearing a certain song, even taste can sometimes act as a cue. For example, students sometimes fail to recall diligently studied material when an examination room's environmental conditions differ significantly from the room or place where learning occurred. Students may consider studying under conditions that resemble an examination center which could boost their recall during actual exams.

Psychologists that have researched context dependent recall include Abernathy (1940).[further explanation needed]


  1. ^ Ellen E. Pastorino; Susann M. Doyle-Portillo (7 November 2011). What is Psychology? Essentials, 2nd ed.: Essentials. Cengage Learning. p. 228. ISBN 978-1-111-83415-9. 
  2. ^ Tulving and Pearlstone (1966)
  3. ^ Psychology Themes and variations, pg 282
  4. ^ Godvin et al. (1966)
  5. ^ Godden and Baddeley (1975)

See also[edit]