Sunday 12 March 2017

Theories of Forgetting: Distortion, Repression, Retroactive and Proactive Inhibition

One question comes to our mind, and that is, why do we forget things or experiences. 
In order to answer this question, there are several possible explanations of what is involved in forgetting. Each of these might have important instructional implications.

Theories of Forgetting
Theories of Forgetting


Fading theory holds that material not brought to mind frequently enough (not used) tends to fade from memory.

What is forgetting?

It is the cessation of a response as a function of the passage of time, not to be confused with extinction.

What is fading theory?

The belief that the inability to recall long-term memories increases with the passage of time as memory traces face. It is also known as decay theory.

Many psychologists do not consider fading theory (also called decay theory) very useful or informative. They argue that time, by itself, does not cause forgetting any more than it causes metal to rust or mountains to erode.

Theory of Decay
Theory of Decay

Educational Implication:

If students forget information because of disuse, teachers can provide repetition and review to remind them of important items.


Memories that don’t entirely fade are often distorted or confused with other memories. As a result, when a person tries to recall the experience, only fragments of the episode is available, and it becomes impossible to remember how and when the fragments were acquired.

Educational Implications:

One way for teachers to help counter this distortion is to emphasize the most important and distinct (the most memorable) aspects of a situation. Features that are highly distinct will be more easily and more accurately remembered.


There is some evidence that people may forget events that are particularly unpleasant. One explanation for repression is Freud’s belief that unpleasant memories filter into the subconscious mind, where the individual is not aware of them even though they may continue to have a profound effect on the person’s emotional life.

Educational Implication:

Repression theory holds that memories of highly unpleasant (traumatic) events may be unconsciously repressed. Ideally, schools and teachers seldom provide students with experiences so horrendous that they end up being buried in an unconscious place.

What is distortion?

It is one explanation for memory loss. It describes a process where the features of an experience are insufficiently bound together so that the person recollecting the experience cannot easily tell what happened when.

What is repression?

It is a Freudian term for the process by which intensely negative or frightening experiences are lost from conscious memory.

 Retroactive and Proactive Inhibition:

A highly researched theory of forgetting, and one with direct relevance for teachers, states that interference from previous or subsequent learning is an important cause of forgetting.

When previous learning interferes with current recall, proactive inhibition is said to occur; retroactive inhibition takes place when subsequent learning interferes with the recall of previous learning.

For example, teachers often have difficulty remembering the names of new students, especially if they have been teaching for a long time and have known many students with similar names. They confuse old names with new but similar faces. Their old learning interferes with learning something new—hence, proactive inhibition.

Once the teachers have learned the names of all their current students, they sometimes find it difficult to remember the names of students from years past. Now newer learning interferes with the recall of old information—hence, retroactive inhibition.

What is proactive inhibition?

It is the interference of earlier learning with the retention of subsequent learning.

What is retroactive inhibition?

It is the interference with the retention of previously learned material by subsequently learned material.

 Educational Implication:

Among the most important suggestions for countering the effects of interference and increasing the ability to recall information are those involving teaching for transfer (also termed generalization). Transfer (or generalization) refers to the effects of old learning on new learning; transfer can be either positive or negative.

Positive transfer occurs when previous learning facilitates new learning and is sometimes evident in learning a second language. For example, it is easier to learn Spanish if you already know French than if you know only English. The similarities between French and Spanish facilitate positive transfer.

Negative transfer takes place when previous learning interferes with current learning; this is similar to proactive interference. For example, negative transfer occurs when I go to Bermuda, rent a motor scooter, and discover that people are driving on the left side of the street (actually, people over there ride on the right side of the street).

One way to teach for positive transfer while still eliminating negative transfer is to relate new material to old material, emphasizing similarities and differences. The similarities should facilitate positive transfer; knowledge of differences should minimize negative transfer.

Retrieval Cue Failure:

Some psychologists maintain that forgetting can be explained by the inability to retrieve from memory, rather than by simple memory loss, distortion, suppression, or interference.
In other words, individuals don’t appear to remember simply because of what is termed retrieval cue failure. The “retrieval cue failure” refers to the inability to recall an item of information from memory.  

Educational Implication:

There is evidence that for declarative (semantic) information—the explicit, conscious sorts of learning with which schools are most concerned—certain types of retrieval cues are the most effective.

For example, Tulving (1989) reported that the most effective retrieval cues are those that closely match the type of recall in question.

Thus, if students will be asked to remember the meanings of words, then cues that emphasize meanings are best. In contrast, if they are to remember the spellings of words, cues that draw attention to letters are the most effective.

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  1. good and simple explanation. Thanks

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