Endel Tulving argued that “the key process in memory is retrieval” (1991, p. 91). Why should retrieval be given more prominence than encoding or storage? For one thing, if information were encoded and stored but could not be retrieved, it would be useless. As discussed previously in this module, we encode and store thousands of events—conversations, sights and sounds—every day, creating memory traces. However, we later access only a tiny portion of what we’ve taken in. Most of our memories will never be used—in the sense of being brought back to mind, consciously. This fact seems so obvious that we rarely reflect on it. All those events that happened to you in the fourth grade that seemed so important then? Now, many years later, you would struggle to remember even a few. You may wonder if the traces of those memories still exist in some latent form. Unfortunately, with currently available methods, it is impossible to know.

Psychologists distinguish information that is available in memory from that which is accessible (Tulving & Pearlstone, 1966). Available information is the information that is stored in memory —but precisely how much and what types are stored cannot be known. That is, all we can know is what information we can retrieve—accessible information. The assumption is that accessible information represents only a tiny slice of the information available in our brains. Most of us have had the experience of trying to remember some fact or event, giving up, and then—all of a sudden!—it comes to us at a later time, even after we’ve stopped trying to remember it. Similarly, we all know the experience of failing to recall a fact, but then, if we are given several choices (as in a multiple-choice test), we are easily able to recognize it.

What factors determine what information can be retrieved from memory? One critical factor is the type of hints, or cues, in the environment. You may hear a song on the radio that suddenly evokes memories of an earlier time in your life, even if you were not trying to remember it when the song came on. Nevertheless, the song is closely associated with that time, so it brings the experience to mind.

We can’t know the entirety of what is in our memory, but only that portion we can actually retrieve. Something that cannot be retrieved now and which is seemingly gone from memory may, with different cues applied, reemerge. [Image: Ores2k,, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,]

The general principle that underlies the effectiveness of retrieval cues is the encoding specificity principle (Tulving & Thomson, 1973): when people encode information, they do so in specific ways. For example, take the song on the radio: perhaps you heard it while you were at a terrific party, having a great, philosophical conversation with a friend. Thus, the song became part of that whole complex experience. Years later, even though you haven’t thought about that party in ages, when you hear the song on the radio, the whole experience rushes back to you.

In general, the encoding specificity principle states that, to the extent a retrieval cue (the song) matches or overlaps the memory trace of an experience (the party, the conversation), it will be effective in evoking the memory. A classic experiment on the encoding specificity principle had participants memorize a set of words in a unique setting. Later, the participants were tested on the word sets, either in the same location they learned the words or a different one. As a result of encoding specificity, the students who took the test in the same place they learned the words were actually able to recall more words (Godden & Baddeley, 1975) than the students who took the test in a new setting.

One caution with this principle, though, is that, for the cue to work, it can’t match too many other experiences (Nairne, 2002; Watkins, 1975). Consider a lab experiment. Suppose you study 100 items; 99 are words, and one is a picture—of a penguin, item 50 in the list. Afterwards, the cue “recall the picture” would evoke “penguin” perfectly. No one would miss it. However, if the word “penguin” were placed in the same spot among the other 99 words, its memorability would be exceptionally worse. This outcome shows the power of distinctiveness that we discussed in the section on encoding: one picture is perfectly recalled from among 99 words because it stands out. Now consider what would happen if the experiment were repeated, but there were 25 pictures distributed within the 100-item list. Although the picture of the penguin would still be there, the probability that the cue “recall the picture” (at item 50) would be useful for the penguin would drop correspondingly. Watkins (1975) referred to this outcome as demonstrating the cue overload principle. That is, to be effective, a retrieval cue cannot be overloaded with too many memories. For the cue “recall the picture” to be effective, it should only match one item in the target set (as in the one-picture, 99-word case).

To sum up how memory cues function: for a retrieval cue to be effective, a match must exist between the cue and the desired target memory; furthermore, to produce the best retrieval, the cue-target relationship should be distinctive. Next, we will see how the encoding specificity principle can work in practice.

Psychologists measure memory performance by using production tests (involving recall) or recognition tests (involving the selection of correct from incorrect information, e.g., a multiple- choice test). For example, with our list of 100 words, one group of people might be asked to recall the list in any order (a free recall test), while a different group might be asked to circle the 100 studied words out of a mix with another 100, unstudied words (a recognition test). In this situation, the recognition test would likely produce better performance from participants than the recall test.

We usually think of recognition tests as being quite easy, because the cue for retrieval is a copy of the actual event that was presented for study. After all, what could be a better cue than the exact target (memory) the person is trying to access? In most cases, this line of reasoning is true; nevertheless, recognition tests do not provide perfect indexes of what is stored in memory. That is, you can fail to recognize a target staring you right in the face, yet be able to recall it later with a different set of cues (Watkins & Tulving, 1975). For example, suppose you had the task of recognizing the surnames of famous authors. At first, you might think that being given the actual last name would always be the best cue. However, research has shown this not necessarily to be true (Muter, 1984). When given names such as Tolstoy, Shaw, Shakespeare, and Lee, subjects might well say that Tolstoy and Shakespeare are famous authors, whereas Shaw and Lee are not. But, when given a cued recall test using first names, people often recall items (produce them) that they had failed to recognize before. For example, in this instance, a cue like George Bernard often leads to a recall of “Shaw,” even though people initially failed to recognize Shaw as a famous author’s name. Yet, when given the cue “William,” people may not come up with Shakespeare, because William is a common name that matches many people (the cue overload principle at work). This strange fact—that recall can sometimes lead to better performance than recognition—can be explained by the encoding specificity principle. As a cue, George Bernard matches the way the famous writer is stored in memory better than does his surname, Shaw, does (even though it is the target). Further, the match is quite distinctive with George Bernard, but the cue William is much more overloaded (Prince William, William Yeats, William Faulkner,

The phenomenon we have been describing is called the recognition failure of recallable words, which highlights the point that a cue will be most effective depending on how the information has been encoded (Tulving & Thomson, 1973). The point is, the cues that work best to evoke retrieval are those that recreate the event or name to be remembered, whereas sometimes even the target itself, such as Shaw in the above example, is not the best cue. Which cue will be most effective depends on how the information has been encoded.

Whenever we think about our past, we engage in the act of retrieval. We usually think that retrieval is an objective act because we tend to imagine that retrieving a memory is like pulling a book from a shelf, and after we are done with it, we return the book to the shelf just as it was. However, research shows this assumption to be false; far from being a static repository of data, the memory is constantly changing. In fact, every time we retrieve a memory, it is altered. For example, the act of retrieval itself (of a fact, concept, or event) makes the retrieved memory much more likely to be retrieved again, a phenomenon called the testing effect or the retrieval practice effect (Pyc & Rawson, 2009; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). However, retrieving some information can actually cause us to forget other information related to it, a phenomenon called retrieval-induced forgetting (Anderson, Bjork, & Bjork, 1994). Thus the act of retrieval can be a double-edged sword—strengthening the memory just retrieved (usually by a large amount) but harming related information (though this effect is often relatively small).

As discussed earlier, retrieval of distant memories is reconstructive. We weave the concrete bits and pieces of events in with assumptions and preferences to form a coherent story (Bartlett, 1932). For example, if during your 10th birthday, your dog got to your cake before you did, you would likely tell that story for years afterward. Say, then, in later years you misremember where the dog actually found the cake, but repeat that error over and over during subsequent retellings of the story. Over time, that inaccuracy would become a basic fact of the event in your mind. Just as retrieval practice (repetition) enhances accurate memories, so will it strengthen errors or false memories (McDermott, 2006). Sometimes memories can even be manufactured just from hearing a vivid story. Consider the following episode, recounted by Jean Piaget, the famous developmental psychologist, from his childhood:

One of my first memories would date, if it were true, from my second year. I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, in which I believed until I was about 15. I was sitting in my pram . . . when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened round me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches, and I can still vaguely see those on her face. . . . When I was about 15, my parents received a letter from my former nurse saying that she had been converted to the Salvation Army. She wanted to confess her past faults, and in particular to return the watch she had been given as a reward on this occasion. She had made up the whole story, faking the scratches. I therefore must have heard, as a child, this story, which my parents believed, and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory. . . . Many real memories are doubtless of the same order. (Norman & Schacter, 1997, pp. 187–188)

Piaget’s vivid account represents a case of a pure reconstructive memory. He heard the tale told repeatedly, and doubtless told it (and thought about it) himself. The repeated telling cemented the events as though they had really happened, just as we are all open to the possibility of having “many real memories … of the same order.” The fact that one can remember precise details (the location, the scratches) does not necessarily indicate that the memory is true, a point that has been confirmed in laboratory studies, too (e.g., Norman & Schacter, 1997).


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