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Context-Dependent Memory

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Context-Dependent Memory

There are different explanations for why we forget things and what affects our memory and recall. One explanation is called retrieval failure.

Retrieval failure is when the memory is available to us, but the necessary cues needed to access and recall the memory are not provided, so retrieval doesn’t occur.

Two examples of retrieval failure based on non-meaningful cues are state-dependent memory and context-dependent memory.

Context-Dependent Memory Retrieval failure StudySmarterRetrieval failure, Flaticon

State-dependent memory

State-dependent memory is when the recall of memory is dependent on internal cues of the state you are in, e.g. being drunk, and increases when you are in that state again or decreases when you’re in a different state.

Carter and Cassaday (1998)

Carter and Cassaday (1998) examined the effects of antihistamine drugs on memory recall. They gave chlorpheniramine to 100 participants, as they have mild sedative effects taht make one drowsy. They created an internal state that was different from the normal waking state by doing so.

Antihistamine drugs help treat symptoms associated with allergies, e.g., hay fever, bug bites and conjunctivitis.

Context-Dependent Memory Antihistamines StudySmarterA drug bottle, pills, and capsules, Flaticon

Researchers then tested participants’ memory by asking them to learn and recall word lists in a drowsy or normal state.

The conditions were:

  • Drowsy learning Drowsy recall.

  • Drowsy learning Normal recall.

  • Normal learning Drowsy recall.

  • Normal learning Normal recall.

In congruent situations, participants performed better at the task. Researchers found that participants who learned and recalled in different states (i.e., drowsy-normal or normal-drowsy) had significantly worse performance and recall than those who learned in the same state (e.g., drowsy-drowsy or normal-normal).

When they were in the same state in both conditions, the relevant cues were present, helping retrieve and improve recall.

Context-dependent memory

Context-dependent memory essentially relies on specific cues when a person encounters the information first.

Context-dependent memory is when memory recall is dependent on external cues, e.g. place, weather, environment, smell, etc., and increases when those cues are present or decrease when they’re absent.

Environmental context-dependent memory

The study of Godden and Baddeley (1975) explored the concept of cue-dependent forgetting. They tested memory by seeing whether participants’ recall was better if they learned and were tested in the same context/environment.

Participants either learned on land or in the sea and were then tested on land or in the sea.

Researchers found that participants who learned and were tested in the same environment had a better recall because the cues present aided the retrieval process and improved their memory.

Context-Dependent Environmental context-dependent memory learning and recall on land StudySmarterEnvironmental context-dependent memory: learning and recall on land, Freepik

Context-Dependent Memory Environmental context-dependent memory learning and recall underwater  StudySmarterEnvironmental context-dependent memory: learning and recall underwater, Freepik

Context-dependent memory example

Based on the theory that was derived from Godden and Baddeley’s (1975) study, Grant et al. (1998) further researched the matter of context-dependent memory and wanted to demonstrate the positive effects of context on memory.

Grant et al. (1998): study summary

The following is a summary of Grant et al. (1998).

Design

Grant et al. (1998) conducted a laboratory experiment with an independent measures design.

There were two independent variables:

  1. Reading condition silent or noisy.

  2. Testing condition silent or noisy.

There were three dependent variables:

  1. Reading time (which was a control).

  2. Short answer test results.

  3. Multiple choice test results.

Participants

There were:

  • 39 participants.

    • Gender 17 females, 23 males.

    • Age 1756 years (mean = 23.4 years).

Materials

The study used headphones and cassette players with a soundtrack of background noise from a cafeteria, a two-page article on psycho immunology that participants had to study and later recall, 16 multiple-choice questions and ten short answer questions the participants were to answer.

Procedure

Each participant was assigned to only one of the following four conditions:

  • Silent learning Silent testing.

  • Noisy learning Noisy testing.

  • Silent learning Noisy testing.

  • Noisy learning Silent testing.

  1. They read the instructions of the study, which was posed as a class project with voluntary participation.
  2. Participants then read the psycho immunology article and were informed that they would be tested by a multiple-choice test and a short answer test.
  3. They all wore headphones as a control measure so that it wouldn’t affect their learning in any way. The researchers told the silent condition ones they’d hear nothing and the noisy condition ones that they’d hear some background noise but to ignore it.
  4. Researchers also measured their reading time as a control so that some participants wouldn’t have a learning advantage over others.
  5. Their memory was then tested on the short answer test first, then the multiple-choice test, and the data collected on their results was interval data.
  6. Lastly, they were debriefed about the true nature of the experiment.

Grant et al. (1998): study results

Grant et al. (1998) found that performance was significantly better when the studying and testing environment/context was the same (i.e. silent study - silent testing or noisy study - noisy testing). This was true for both multiple-choice test questions and short-answer test questions.

Thus, memory and recall were better when the context/environment was the same than when it was different.

Grant et al. (1998): conclusion

Therefore, we see from the results of this study that context-dependent effects exist for meaningful material learned and will help improve memory and recall.

Learning and being tested in the same context/environment leads to better performance and recall.

Therefore, we can apply these findings to real-life situations since it would help students better their performance on exams if they learned in the same environment as they will be tested in, i.e. silent conditions. Overall, it appears that learning in a silent environment is the most beneficial to remembering information later, regardless of the test.

Grant et al. (1998): evaluation

Grant et al. (1998) have their strengths and weaknesses we must consider for your exam.

StrengthsWeaknesses

Internal validity: the design of the laboratory experiment increases internal validity because it means researchers can replicate the conditions and materials precisely. Also, the control conditions set by the experimenter (everyone wearing headphones and reading time being measured) increase the study’s internal validity.

External validity: While using the headphones was a good measure to increase internal validity, it could have compromised external validity since headphones are not allowed in actual exams.

Predictive validity: because the findings were significant for a wide range of ages, we can assume researchers will replicate these findings of the effect of context-dependent memory if tested in the future.

Sample size: while the results are significant, there were only 39 participants, making it hard to generalise results, so there may not be as much validity as the results suggested.

Ethics: this study was highly ethical and didn’t have any ethical issues. The participants obtained full informed consent, and their participation was completely voluntary. They were protected from harm and debriefed upon the study’s completion.


Context-Dependent Memory - Key takeaways

  • Retrieval failure is an explanation of forgetting and is when the memory is available to us. The necessary cues needed to access and recall the memory are not provided, so retrieval doesn’t occur.
  • Two examples are state-dependent forgetting and context-dependent forgetting.
  • State-dependent memory is when memory recall is dependent on internal cues of the state you are in, e.g. being drunk and increasing when you are in that state again or decreasing when you’re in a different state.
  • Carter and Cassaday (1998) found that participants who learned and recalled in different states (i.e. drowsy-normal or vice versa) had significantly worse performance and memory.
  • Context-dependent memory is when memory recall is dependent on external cues, e.g. place, weather, environment, smell, etc. and increases when those cues are present or decrease when they’re absent.
  • Godden and Baddeley (1975) found that participants who learned and were tested in the same place (land or sea) had better recall and memory.
  • Grant et al. (1998) further researched context-dependent memory to demonstrate its positive effects on recall.
  • Participants learned and were tested in silent or noisy conditions.
  • Researchers found that performance, meaning memory, and recall was significantly better when the studying and testing condition.
  • Therefore, we can apply these findings to real-life situations, e.g., students studying in silent conditions like they’ll be tested in will improve their performance.
  • Evaluation: strengths of the study by Grant et al. include high internal and predictive validity and good ethics. Weaknesses are its small sample size and problems with external validity.

Frequently Asked Questions about Context-Dependent Memory

Context-dependent memory is when memory recall is dependent on external cues, e.g. place, weather, environment, smell, etc. and increases when those cues are present or decrease when they’re absent. 

State-dependent memory is when memory recall is dependent on internal cues of the state you are in, e.g. being drunk and increasing when you are in that state again or decreasing when you’re in a different state.


Context-dependent memory is when memory recall is dependent on external cues, e.g. place, weather, environment, smell, etc. and increases when those cues are present or decrease when they’re absent.

Grant et al. (1998) further researched context-dependent memory to demonstrate its positive effects.

Participants learned and were tested in silent or noisy conditions. Researchers found that performance was significantly better when the studying and testing conditions were the same.

Interval data.

We see from the results of this study that context-dependent effects exist and that learning and being tested in the same context/environment leads to better performance and recall.

Final Context-Dependent Memory Quiz

Question

What is state-dependent memory?

Show answer

Answer

State-dependent memory is when the recall of memory is dependent on internal cues of the state you are in, e.g., being drunk, and increases when you are in that state again or decreases when you’re in a different state. 

Show question

Question

What is context-dependent memory?

Show answer

Answer

Context-dependent memory is when memory recall is dependent on external cues, e.g., place, weather, environment, smell, etc., and increases when those cues are present or decrease when they’re absent. 

Show question

Question

What did Carter and Cassaday (1998) find and why?

Show answer

Answer

They found that participants who learned and recalled in different states (i.e., drowsy-normal or normal-drowsy) had significantly worse performance and recall than those who learned in the same state (e.g., drowsy-drowsy or normal-normal).

When they were in the same state in both conditions, the relevant cues were present, helping retrieval and improving recall.

Show question

Question

What did Godden and Baddeley (1975) do?

Show answer

Answer

They tested memory by seeing whether participants’ recall was better if they learned and were tested in the same context/environment. Participants either learned on land or in the sea and then were tested on land or in the sea. 

Show question

Question

What did Godden and Baddeley (1975) find?

Show answer

Answer

They found that participants who learned and were tested in the same environment had a better recall because the present cues helped retrieval and improved their memory.

Show question

Question

What did Grant et al. (1998) want to demonstrate with their study?

Show answer

Answer

Based on the theory derived from Godden and Baddeley’s (1975) study, Grant et al. (1998) further researched the matter of context-dependent memory. They wanted to demonstrate the positive effects of context on memory.

Show question

Question

What were the findings of the study by Grant et al. (1998)?

Show answer

Answer

Grant et al. (1998) found that performance was significantly better when the studying and testing environment/context was the same (i.e. silent study, silent testing or noisy study, noisy testing).

This was true for both multiple-choice test questions and short-answer test questions.

As a result, memory and recall were better when the context/environment was the same than when it was different.

Show question

Question

What were the conclusions of the study by Grant et al. (1998)? 

Show answer

Answer

We see from the results of this study that context-dependent effects exist for meaningful material that is learned and help improve memory and recall.


Learning and being tested in the same context/environment leads to better performance and recall.

Show question

Question

What is an application of the study by Grant et al. (1998)?

Show answer

Answer

It would help students better their performance on exams if they learned in the same environment they would be tested in, i.e., silent conditions.

Show question

Question

Why was internal validity a strength in the study by Grant et al. (1998)? 

Show answer

Answer

The design of the laboratory experiment increases internal validity because it means researchers can replicate the conditions and materials exactly. Also, the control conditions set by the experimenter (everyone wearing headphones and measuring reading time) increase the study’s internal validity.

Show question

Question

What was a problem with external validity in the study by Grant et al. (1998)?

Show answer

Answer

While using the headphones was a good measure to increase internal validity, it could have compromised external validity since headphones are not allowed in actual exams. 

Show question

Question

What was the problem of sample size in the study by Grant et al. (1998)?

Show answer

Answer

There were only 39 participants, making it hard to generalise results, so there may not be as much validity as the results suggested.

Show question

Question

Why was predictive validity a strength in the study by Grant et al. (1998)?

Show answer

Answer

Because the findings were significant for a wide range of ages, we can assume these findings of the effect of context-dependent memory will be replicated if tested in the future.

Show question

Question

What were the ethics like in the study by Grant et al. (1998)?

Show answer

Answer

This study was highly ethical and didn't have any moral issues. They obtained full informed consent from the participants, and their participation was completely voluntary. They were protected from harm and debriefed upon the study’s completion. 

Show question

Question

a.) What is the definition of retrieval failure?

b.) What are two types of retrieval failure based on non-meaningful cues?

Show answer

Answer

a.) Retrieval failure is an explanation of forgetting and is when the memory is available to us. The necessary cues needed to access and recall the memory are not provided, so retrieval doesn’t occur. 

b.) Two types of retrieval failure based on non-meaningful cues are state-dependent memory and context-dependent memory.

Show question

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