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Page last updated January 30, 2018

Forgetting: When Memory Lapses
  • What would it be like if you remembered everything that ever happened to you?
  • It's probably helpful that we do forget all sorts of things that are no longer relevant of important
                  Ebbinghaus]A. How Quickly We Forget: Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve
Earliest studies of forgetting were done by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885) who developed lists of "nonsense" syllables (consonant-vowel-consonant, e.g., XOR, LIM, WEP, etc.). He learned lists of these syllables until he remembered the whole list. Then, he tested himself at different times to see how many of these syllables he could recall. His results showed a distinct pattern as the diagram of his "forgetting curve" below shows.
Ebbinghaus (1885) Forgetting Curve

  • Most forgetting takes place in the first hour or two after learning something. Then, forgetting becomes more gradual.
  • Later research found that Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve may be somewhat too steep, that is, not quite as much is forgotten as he found with himself.
  • Issue of remembering nonsense syllables vs. meaningful information: people have less motivation to remember nonsense information. Thus, for memorable information, we may retain that for longer periods of time.

B. Measures of Forgetting: 'Forgetting" can be measured in different ways. Here are 4 different measures of forgetting/remembering.

  • Retention: Proportion of material which is retained or remembered
  • Recall: Reproduce information without any cues
  • Recognition: Select previously learned information from an array of options
    • Multiple choice tests favor recognition memory while fill-in-the-blank tests require recall memory
  • Relearning: How long does it take to relearn what you had previously learned?

C. Why We Forget

1. Ineffective Coding
  • If you did not really encode the information for storage in the first place, you can't recall it. This is a type of pseudoforgetting. Information which is processed at a shallow level is often not actually coded for memory.
2. Decay = memory traces fade with age
  • Research shows that, after controlling for ineffective coding, there is little evidence for decay in long-term memory.
3. Interference Problem = forgetting information because of competition from other material (see examples in chart below)
  • Retroactive Interference: New learning interferes with old learning (NIO).
  • Proactive Interference: Old learning interferes with new learning (OIN)
Interference in Memory

4. Retrieval Failure = inability to remember at one point in time, but later on you recall what you were searching to remember. Probably reflects the absence of any effective cue to prompt the recall.
5. "Motivated" Forgetting

Freud two photos
  • Sigmund Freud (1901): Described a process he called "repression" when he found his patients recalling very painful memories from their childhood that they previously had "forgotten"
  • Repression is theorized to be an action by our mind in which distressing or anxiety provoking thoughts and feelings are hidden or buried in the unconscious.
  • Have you ever "forgotten" an appointment or meeting for something that you didn't really want to go to?

Franklin Case of False Repressed MemoryThe Repressed Memory Controversy

  • In the late 1980s and 1990s, individuals began reporting to their therapists the recollection of memories, long buried from the past, which claimed experiences of sexual abuse, traumas, and even the witnessing of murder. Parents, teachers, and others were identified as the abusers and some were tried before the courts and convicted.
  • Some psychologists and psychotherapists argue that the recovery of memories of abuse are valid and real. They claim that abuse has been much more widespread than originally thought (this is true).
  • However, many psychologists (particularly those who research memory processes) reject the notion of repressed memories.
    • Multiple examples of discredited cases (see the George Franklin, Sr. case)
    • Evidence of suggestion offered by therapists who may have implanted such memories (e.g., misinformation effect, etc.)
    • Elizabeth Loftus has done extensive research showing that memories can be implanted.
    • PTSD patients normally show too many memories rather than repressed memories for their traumas.
  • So what can we say?
    • Yes, abuse IS much more widespread than previously thought and undoubtedly some victims do repress their experiences.
    • Almost certainly, many "repressed" memories are actually "believed in imaginings", that is, their authors genuinely believe that they are remembering something from the past, but such memories are actually products of the imagination.
    • Further, therapists need to be very cautious not to establish expectations that there is something buried in memory.


This page originally posted on 9/26/07