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Context and State Dependent Memory

By Dr. Saul McLeod, updated 2021


According to Tulving (1974) when we learn information we also encode details about the environment in which we learned the information and the physical and emotional state we are in at the time.

Tulving suggested that information about the physical surroundings (external context) and about the physical or psychological state of the learner (internal context) is stored at the same time as information is learned.

Reinstating the internal state or external context makes recall easier by providing relevant information, while retrieval failure occurs when appropriate cues are not present.

Context-dependent forgetting can occur when the environment during recall is different from the environment you were in when you were learning.

State-dependent forgetting occurs when your mood or physiological state during recall is different from the mood you were in when you were learning.

Context Dependent Memory

Context-dependent memory refers to improved recall of specific episodes or information when contextual cues relating to the environment are the same during encoding and retrieval.

An interesting experiment conducted by Godden and Baddeley (1975) indicates the importance of setting for retrieval. Baddeley asked 18 deep-sea divers to memorize a list of 36 unrelated words of two or three syllables.

One group did this on the beach and the other group underwater. When they were asked to remember the words half of the beach learners remained on the beach, the rest had to recall underwater.

Half of the underwater group remained there and the others had to recall on the beach. 

The results show that the external context acted as a cue to recall as the participants recalled more words when they learnt and recalled the words in the same environment than when they learnt and recalled the words in different environments.

Critical Evaluation

This study has limited ecological validity because the environment was familiar to the divers but the task was artificial as we are not usually asked to learn a list of meaningless words in our everyday life.

Another weakness is that the groups who learnt and recalled in different environments were disrupted (they had to change environment) whereas the groups who learnt and recalled in the same environment were not disrupted. This could have influenced their recall.

However it was a controlled experiment so it can be replicated so reliability can be tested.

There is further support for the influence of contextual cues. Abernathy (1940) found that students performed better in tests if the tests took place in the same room as the learning of the material had taken place, and were administered by the same instructor who had taught the information.

The studies carried out do not take into account the meaning of the material and the level of motivation of the person when learning the information.

This theory can be applied to real life: police uses this theory in cognitive interview by asking witnesses to describe the context in which the incident took place to enhance their recall.

This theory is difficult to disprove as if recall does not occur is it because the information is not stored or because you are not providing the right cue? (circular argument)

State Dependent Memory

State-dependent memory refers to improved recall of specific episodes or information when cues relating to emotional and physical state are the same during encoding and retrieval.

State retrieval clues may be based on state-the physical or psychological state of the person when information is encoded and retrieved.  For example, a person may be alert, tired, happy, sad, drunk or sober when the information was encoded.  They will be more likely to retrieve the information when they are in a similar state.

Goodwin et al. (1975) carried out an experiment on emotional state by asking forty-eight male medical students to remember a list of words when they were either drunk or sober. The participants were asked to recall after 24 hours when some were sober but had to get drunk again.

They were randomly assigned to four groups:

  • Group1: (SS) was sober on both days.
  • Group 2: (AA) was intoxicated both days.
  • Group 3: (AS) was intoxicated on day 1 and sober on day 2.
  • Group 4: (SA) was sober on day 1 and intoxicated on day 2.

The intoxicated groups had 111 mg/100 ml alcohol in their blood, and they all showed signs of intoxication.

The Participants had to perform 4 tests: an avoidance task, a verbal rote-learning task, a word-association test, and a picture recognition task.

They found that information learnt while drunk is more available when in the same state later. More errors were made on day 2 in the AS and SA condition than in the AA or SS conditions, however this was not the case for the picture recognition test. The SS participants performed best in all tasks.

This supports the state-dependent memory theory as the performance was best in the participants who were sober or intoxicated on both days.

Critical Evaluation

This study has limited ecological validity because the tasks performed by the participants were artificial therefore their performance might not reflect the way they would perform on tasks in every day life.

The participants knew that they were taking part in a study so they might have changed their behaviour (demand characteristics) to fit in with the aims of the study.

However it was a controlled experiment so it can be replicated so reliability can be tested.

There is further support for the influence of state-dependent cues. Overton (1964) experimented on two groups of rats, one group was given a mild barbiturate the other group did not get the drug. They were then placed in a simple maze and taught to escape an electrical shock.

When the group with the drug were placed back in the maze without the drug they could not remember how to escape the shock but if they were given the drug again they could recall how to escape the shocks. However humans are cognitively different from rats so we cannot extrapolate the results but a strength of this study is that animals are not influenced by demand characteristics.

The studies carried out do not take into account the meaning of the material and the level of motivation of the person when learning the information.

This theory is difficult to disprove as if recall does not occur is it because the information is not stored or because you are not providing the right cue? (circular argument)

Real –life applications: this is used as a strategy to improve recall in eye-witness memory when the witnesses are asked to describe their mood/ emotional state when the incident they have witnessed took place (cognitive interview).

References

Abernethy, E. M. (1940). The effect of changed environmental conditions upon the results of college examinations. The Journal of Psychology, 10(2), 293-301.

Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context‐dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. British Journal of psychology, 66(3), 325-331.

Goodwin, D. W., Crane, J. B., & Guze, S. B. (1969). Alcoholic “blackouts”: a review and clinical study of 100 alcoholics. American Journal of Psychiatry, 126(2), 191-198.

Overton, D. A. (1964). State-dependent or" dissociated" learning produced with pentobarbital. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology, 57(1), 3.

Tulving, E. (1974). Cue-dependent forgetting. American Scientist, 62, 74-82.


How to reference this article:

Mcleod, S. (2021, March 04). Context and state dependent memory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/context-and-state-dependent-memory.html

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