Decay Theory of Forgetting

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The oldest idea about forgetting is that it is simply caused by decay. That is, memory traces are formed in the brain when we learn information, and they gradually disintegrate over time. Although decay theory was accepted as a general explanation of forgetting for many years, most psychologists do not lend it credence today for several reasons. First, decay theory does not really provide an explanation of forgetting, but merely a description. That is, time by itself is not a causative agent; rather, processes operating over time cause effects. Consider a bicycle left out in the rain that has rusted. If someone asked why it rusted, he or she would not be satisfied with the answer of “time out in the rain.” A more accurate explanation would refer to oxidation processes operating over time as the cause of the rusty bicycle. Likewise, memory decay merely describes the fact of forgetting, not the processes that cause it.

The second problem for decay theory is the phenomenon of reminiscence, the fact that sometimes memories actually recover over time. Experiments confirm an observation experienced by most people: One can forget some information at one point in time and yet be able to retrieve it perfectly well at a later point. This feat would be impossible if memories inevitably decayed further over time. A final reason that decay theory is no longer accepted is that researchers accumulated support for a different theory that interference processes cause forgetting.

Interference Theory of Forgetting

According to many psychologists, forgetting occurs because of interference from other information or activities over time. A now-classic experiment conducted in 1924 by two American psychologists, John Jenkins and Karl Dallenbach, provided the first evidence for the role of interference in forgetting. The experimenters enlisted two students to learn lists of nonsense syllables either late at night (just before going to bed) or the first thing in the morning (just after getting up). The researchers then tested the students’ memories of the syllables after one, two, four, or eight hours. If the students learned the material just before bed, they slept during the time between the study session and the test. If they learned the material just after waking, they were awake during the interval before testing. The researchers’ results are shown in the accompanying chart entitled, “Forgetting in Sleep and Waking.” The students forgot significantly more while they were awake than while they were asleep. Even when wakened from a sound sleep, they remembered the syllables better than when they returned to the lab for testing during the day. If decay of memories occurred automatically with the passage of time, the rate of forgetting should have been the same during sleep and waking. What seemed to cause forgetting was not time itself, but interference from activities and events occurring over time.

There are two types of interference. Proactive interference occurs when prior learning or experience interferes with our ability to recall newer information. For example, suppose you studied Spanish in tenth grade and French in eleventh grade. If you then took a French vocabulary test much later, your earlier study of Spanish vocabulary might interfere with your ability to remember the correct French translations. Retroactive interference occurs when new information interferes with our ability to recall earlier information or experiences. For example, try to remember what you had for lunch five days ago. The lunches you have had for the intervening four days probably interfere with your ability to remember this event. Both proactive and retroactive interference can have devastating effects on remembering.

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