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Von Restorff effect

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The Von Restorff effect, also known as the "isolation effect", predicts that when multiple homogeneous stimuli are presented, the stimulus that differs from the rest is more likely to be remembered.[1] The theory was coined by German psychiatrist and pediatrician Hedwig von Restorff (1906–1962), who, in her 1933 study, found that when participants were presented with a list of categorically similar items with one distinctive, isolated item on the list, memory for the item was improved.[2]

The study utilized the isolation paradigm, which refers to a distinctive feature of an item in a list that differs from the others by way of dimension. Such distinctiveness, leading to the von Restorff effect, can be generated from changing the meaningfulness or physical nature of the stimulus in some way, such as in size, shape, color, spacing and underlining.


For example, if a person examines a shopping list with one item highlighted in bright green, he or she will be more likely to remember the highlighted item than any of the others. Additionally, in the following list of words – desk, chair, bed, table, chipmunk, dresser, stool, couch – "chipmunk" will be remembered the most as it stands out against the other words in its meaning.


There are different theories proposed to explain the increased performance of isolated items. The total-time hypothesis suggests that isolated items are rehearsed for a longer time in working memory compared to non-isolated items. Another approach offers that subjects could consider the isolated items to be in their own special category in a free-recall task, making them easier to recollect. A separate explanation is based upon the analysis of the deep processing of similarities and differences among the items. Debate surrounds whether perceptual salience and differential attention are necessary to produce this effect. Modern theory holds that the contextual incongruity of the isolate is what leads to the differential attention to this item. Based on this assumption, an isolation effect would not be expected if the isolated item were presented prior to some consistent context, a theory that goes against von Restorff's findings.[3]

Empirical data has shown a strong relationship between the von Restorff effect and measures of event-related potential in the brain. Specifically, evidence has shown that exposure to novel or isolated items on a list for free recall generates an ERP with a larger amplitude and this amplitude in turn predicts a higher likelihood of future recall and faster recognition of the items.[4]


There have been many studies that demonstrate and confirm the von Restorff effect in children and young adults. Another study found that college-aged students performed better when trying to remember an outstanding item in a list during an immediate memory-task whereas elderly individuals did not remember it well, suggesting a difference in processing strategies between the age groups.[5]

In yet another study, although a significant von Restorff effect was produced amongst both age groups when manipulating font color, it was found to be smaller in older adults than younger adults. This too indicates that older people display lesser benefits for distinctive information compared to younger people.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Parker, Amanda; Wilding, Edward; Akerman, Colin (1998). "The von Restorff Effect in Visual Object Recognition Memory in Humans and Monkeys: The Role of Frontal/Perirhinal Interaction" (PDF). Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 10 (6): 691–703. doi:10.1162/089892998563103. PMID 9831738. S2CID 8416091.
  2. ^ von Restorff, Hedwig (1933). "Über die Wirkung von Bereichsbildungen im Spurenfeld" [The effects of field formation in the trace field]. Psychologische Forschung [Psychological Research] (in German). 18 (1): 299–342. doi:10.1007/BF02409636. S2CID 145479042.
  3. ^ Hunt, R. Reed (1995). "The subtlety of distinctiveness: What von Restorff really did" (PDF). Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 2 (1): 105–112. doi:10.3758/BF03214414. PMID 24203592. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-05-07.
  4. ^ Karis, Demetrios; Fabiani, Monica; Donchin, Emanuel (1984). ""P300" and memory: Individual differences in the von Restorff effect". Cognitive Psychology. 16 (2): 177–216. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(84)90007-0. S2CID 54367079.
  5. ^ Bireta, Tamra; Surprenant, Aimée; Neath, Ian (2008). "Age-related differences in the von Restorff isolation effect". The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 61 (3): 345–352. doi:10.1080/17470210701626608. PMID 17896205. S2CID 21496884.
  6. ^ Cimbalo, Richard S.; Brink, Lois (1982). "Aging and the von Restorff Isolation Effect in Short/Term Memory". The Journal of General Psychology. 106 (1): 69–76. doi:10.1080/00221309.1982.9710974. PMID 7057166.