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New research explores why we remember and why we forget

Association for Psychological Science

Psychological scientists are exploring the mechanisms that underlie memory to understand why we remember certain things and why we forget others. Read about the latest research on memory published in the November 2012 issue of Psychological Science.

Retrieval-Induced Forgetting Predicts Failure to Recall Negative Autobiographical Memories

Failure to retrieve memories may not always be a bad thing - we might, for example, prefer to forget about certain instances of heartbreak or failure in favor of some of the more positive events from our lives. In this study, researchers Benjamin Storm of the University of California, Santa Cruz and Tara Jobe of the University of Illinois at Chicago asked participants to perform a memory task meant to assess retrieval-induced forgetting - when remembering one piece of information leads to forgetting other information. They also assessed participants' recall for positive and negative memories from their own lives. Storm and Jobe found that participants who displayed lower levels of retrieval-induced forgetting recalled more negative events than positive events. According to the researchers, this finding suggests that people who have impaired retrieval-induced forgetting may be less capable of inhibiting negative thoughts. Ultimately, this finding may help to shed some light on the relationship between forgetting - or lack thereof - and depression.

Intergenerational Transmission of the Reminiscence Bump and Biographical Conflict Knowledge

Historical knowledge is often transmitted through stories passed down from one generation to another. In this study, psychological scientists Connie Svob and Norman Brown of the University of Alberta examined whether the memories shared by older generations are the same ones remembered by younger generations. The researchers split young adults were split into two groups: those whose parents had lived through political conflict and those whose parents had not. The participants were asked to list 10 important memories from one parent's life and estimate their parent's age during the event. In both groups, the temporal reporting of the memories exhibited a reminiscence bump that was related to the parent's estimated age. According to Svob and Brown, these findings indicate that the reminiscence bump is influenced by sociocultural events.

Decay Versus Interference: A New Look at an Old Interaction

For years, researchers have debated whether memory traces decay with time, whether memory traces interfere with one another, or whether decay and interference occur together. In this study, Erik Altmann of Michigan State University and Christian Schunn of the University of Pittsburgh reexamined Waugh and Norman's 1965 study (often used as support for the interference-only perspective) from the viewpoint that decay and interference occur together. The researchers created a simple formal model based on existing memory theory that took into account both interference and decay and fit this model to Waugh and Norman's original data. The model fit the data well, suggesting that both processes may be at work and demonstrating the importance of a functional, system-level focus in driving memory theory.


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