Figure 615

Original learning, total free recall, and total free cued recall as a function of the number of interpolated lists. Data from Tulving and Psotka (1971).

Studies designed to test cue-dependent forgetting and the encoding specificity principle have shown that changes in contextual information between storage and test can produce substantial reductions in memory performance. It is tempting to assume that forgetting over time can be explained in the same way. According to Bouton, Nelson, and Rosas (1999, p. 171):

Retrieval is best when there is a match between the conditions present during encoding and the conditions present during retrievalwhen there is a mismatch, retrieval failure occurs .the passage of time can create a mismatch because internal and external contextual cues that were present during learning may change or fluctuate over time.Thus, the passage of time may change the background context and make it less likely that target material will be retrieved. We call this approach the context-change account of forgetting.

Mensink and Raaijmakers (1988) proposed a version of context-change theory based on the search of associative memory (SAM) model discussed later. They made the following theoretical assumptions:

1. Forgetting over time will occur if the contextual retrieval cues used at time 2 are less strongly associated with the correct memory trace than are the retrieval cues used at time 1.

2. There is a contextual fluctuation process operating over time which can produce forgetting as indicated in (1).

3. Forgetting over time will occur if the strength and number of incorrect memory traces associated with the contextual retrieval cues are greater at time 2 than time 1.

Mensink and Raaij makers (1988) showed that a mathematical model based on these assumptions could predict a wide range of phenomena, including proactive and retroactive interference. For example, consider proactive interference. Proactive interference is not found when List 2 learning is followed immediately by a memory test, but there is a gradual increase in such interference as the length of the retention interval increases. According to the theory, the contextual fluctuation process weakens the accessibility of the correct memory traces from List 2 over time (assumptions 1 and 2). In addition, the relative accessibility of the incorrect memory traces from List 1 increases (assumption 3), in part because of the decreased accessibility of the correct memory traces from List 2 over time. Thus, there is more proactive interference at long retention intervals.


Cue-dependent forgetting is of major importance, with the relationship between the external and internal cues available at learning and at test having a great influence on memory performance. The notion that increased forgetting over time can be attributed to a contextual fluctuation process is more speculative. Context-change theories based on this notion provide plausible accounts of forgetting. However, there is little strong evidence for contextual fluctuation. Mensink and Raaijmakers (1988, p. 453) admitted that they had not tested their context-change theory thoroughly: "All [mathematical] 'fits' were qualitative and it remains to be seen whether the model can predict the correct magnitude of the effects."

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