Context-dependent explanations for forgetting are based on the idea that we are trying to recall memories outside the context in which the information was initially learned. For example if students learn information in a classroom, the context-dependent explanation would suggest the best place for them to recall the information would be the classroom. Practical applications for this theory would suggest that students would perform better if they were to take their exams in the classrooms they learn’t in rather than the exam halls and outside their learning environment.

Why does this happen? Theories suggest that during the encoding, storage and retrieval process for memory, we also encode things which are around us at the time of the memory being encoded. This may include the various sensory inputs at the time such as sight, sound, taste, smell and even touch which all become part of the memory itself. Encoded memories are then associated with the contexts in which they were created and once individuals are placed within those contexts, associations with context and sensory inputs are recreated which stimulate the different elements of memory assisting in recall.

Key Study – Godden and Baddeley (1975) – The study of divers memories

Godden and Baddeley (1975) conducted a study to see if people were able to remember more if they were asked to recall information in the same context in which it was originally learnt. To do this researchers asked a group of divers to learn a list of words underwater. Half the group were then tested on their recall ability while on the beach while the other half were tested underwater. The results found the divers who were tested on their recall ability while underwater were able to recall more words than those on the beach. The conclusion drawn was that once people are put back into the context in which they learn the information, in this case the divers being underwater, this helped them recall their list of words and this applied across recall in general.

Practical applications for context explanations of forgetting

Police can use this understanding to assist in finding missing persons or help solve crimes. For example reconstructions which involve the police recreating the context in which the crimes happened can help witnesses to recall information who may have been there but need the context recreated to assist in recall. Examples of this include the Rachel Moran murder where in 2003 she went missing and the police staged a reconstruction. This ultimately led to the conviction of her murderer.

A weakness however with reconstructions and attempting to recreate the context is this may not always be possible to do exactly in the same way. Time and effort is also a factor in this which may limit this possibility.

How to cite/reference this information:

The context-dependent explanation of forgetting –


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