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Confusion, Not Decay, Most Important In Forgetting Over Short Term

Date:
December 15, 2008
Source:
Association for Psychological Science
Summary:
Theories suggest that we forget when information simply decays from our memory (when too much time has passed) or when we confuse an item with other items that we have previously encountered (also known as temporal confusability). Psychologists investigated the two theories to pinpoint the main cause of forgetfulness over the short term. The results, reported in Psychological Science, reveal that temporal confusability, and not decay, is important for forgetting over the short term.

Even though forgetting is such a common occurrence, scientists have not reached a consensus as to how it happens. One theory is that information simply decays from our memory—we forget things because too much time has passed. Another idea states is that forgetfulness occurs when we confuse an item with other items that we have previously encountered (also known as temporal confusability).

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Psychologists Nash Unsworth from the University of Georgia, Richard P. Heitz from Vanderbilt University and Nathan A. Parks from the Georgia Institute of Technology investigated the two theories to pinpoint the main cause of forgetfulness over the short term. In their study, the participants were presented with a “Ready” screen (on a computer) for either 1.5 seconds or 60 seconds. Following this, they were presented with a string of three letters and were instructed to remember them for a later test. But, before they were asked to recall the three letters, the volunteers were told to count backwards for various amounts of time (4, 8, 12 or 16 seconds).

The results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reveal that temporal confusability, and not decay, is important for forgetting over the short term. The volunteers who had to count backwards for the longest amount of time were better able to recall the letters than volunteers who were asked to count backwards for a shorter time period. If decay was the culprit behind forgetting, the group that was asked to count backwards for a longer amount of time would have performed the worst during recall.

The authors conclude that “it is possible to alleviate and even reverse the classic pattern of forgetting by making information distinct, so that it stands out relative to its background”. These findings have very important implications not just for everyday memory use, but also for educational practices and for populations with memory problems, such as the elderly.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Unsworth et al. The Importance of Temporal Distinctiveness for Forgetting Over the Short Term. Psychological Science, 2008; 19 (11): 1078 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02203.x

Cite This Page:

Association for Psychological Science. "Confusion, Not Decay, Most Important In Forgetting Over Short Term." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 December 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081212153204.htm>.
Association for Psychological Science. (2008, December 15). Confusion, Not Decay, Most Important In Forgetting Over Short Term. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 27, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081212153204.htm
Association for Psychological Science. "Confusion, Not Decay, Most Important In Forgetting Over Short Term." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081212153204.htm (accessed March 27, 2015).

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