Explanations for Forgetting: Retrieval Failure

– Forgetting in LTM is mainly due to retrieval failure and a lack of accessibility rather than availability

– This is the failure to find an item of information because you have insufficient clues or cues


– This is forgetting due to insufficient cues.

– A cue is a trigger of information that allows us to access memory

– If these cues are not available at the time of recall, it may make it appear as if you have forgotten the information but, in fact, this is due not being able to access memories that are there.


– In 1983 Tulving discovered a consistent pattern to his findings in which he called the encoding specificity principle.

– This states that if a cue is to help us recall information it has to be present at encoding (when we learn the material) and at retrieval (when we are recalling it).

– If the cues at encoding and retrieval are different or absent there will be some forgetting.

– Some cues are encoded at the time of learning but not in a meaningful way.

– There are two types of this: context dependent forgetting (external cues) and state-dependent forgetting (internal cues)


– Due to a lack of external cues

– In 1975 Godden and Baddeley carried out a study on scuba divers.


– The divers learned a list of words either underwater or on land and then were asked to recall the words either underwater or on land.

-This created four conditions:

– Learn on land, recall on land              – Learn underwater, recall underwater

– Learn on land, recall underwater        – Learn underwater, recall on land


– In the two conditions where the environment contexts of learning and recall matched the accurate recall was 40% higher than when they didn’t match

– This is because when the contexts of learning and recall did not match the external cues available at learning were different from the ones at recall and this led to retrieval failure.


– Due to a lack of internal cues (being in the same state of mind)

– Memory will be best when a person’s physical or psychological state is similar at encoding and retrieval.

– 1998 Carter and Cassaday


– They gave antihistamine drugs to their participants

– The anti-histamines had a mild sedative effect making their participants slightly drowsy.

– This creates an internal physiological state different from the ‘normal’ state of being awake and alert.

– The participants had to earn lists of words and passages of prose and then recall the information.

– There were four conditions:

– Learn on drug, recall when on it              – Learn not on drug, recall when on it

– Learn on drug, recall when not on it        – Learn on drug, recall when not on it


– In the conditions where there was a mismatch between internal state at learning and recall, performance on the memory test was significantly worse.

– So when cues are absent, there is more forgetting.



Research support

– Lots of research supports the retrieval failure explanation for forgetting

– A field experiment by Abernethy demonstrated the importance of context dependent learning among a group of students studying a course, they were able to remember better if the external cues were the same when they were learning and when they were recalling the information.

– In 2010 Michael Eysenck argues that retrieval failure theory is perhaps the main reason for forgetting LTM.

– This is a strength because supporting evidence increases the validity of an explanation.

– This is also good because it shows that retrieval failure occurs in real-life situations as well as in the highly controlled conditions in the lab.

Real World Application

– An obvious application of this research is to use it to improve recall when you need to, for example when you are taking exams.

– Abernathy’s research suggests that you ought to revise in the room where you will be taking the exams.

– This may be unrealistic, but you could use imagination to achieve this.

– Smith’s research shows that just thinking of the room where you did the original learning was as effective as actually being in the same room at the time of the retrieval.

– Another application of retrieval failure is in the cognitive interview

– This shows how research into retrieval failure can suggest strategies for improving recall in real-world situations, such as taking you exams or giving eyewitness testimonies.


Recall versus recognition

– The context effect may be related to the kind of memory being tested.

– Godden and Baddeley replicated their underwater experiment but used a recognition test instead of recall

– Participants had to say whether they recognised a word read to them from the list, instead of retrieving it themselves.

– When this was tested there was no context-dependant effect; performance was the same in all four conditions.

– This is a further limitation of context effects because it means that the presence or absence of cues only affects memory when you test it in a certain way.

Retrieval Cues Do Not Always Work

– Using Cues to improve your exam performance is not always effective.

– The issue is that the information you are learning is related to a lot more than just the cues.

– In most of the research and context effects, participants learn a list of words

– But when you are learning, for example, about milgram’s research into obedience, you are learning about complex associations that are less easily triggered by single cues.

– The effectiveness of cues are reduced by the presence of better cues.

– According to Smith and Vela context effects are largely eliminated when learning meaningful material.

– This suggests that while the lack of retrieval cues can explain instances of everyday forgetting, they don’t explain everything