What factors determine what information can be retrieved from memory? One critical factor is the type of hints, or cues, in the environment. You may hear a song on the radio that suddenly evokes memories of an earlier time in your life, even if you were not trying to remember it when the song came on. Nevertheless, the song is closely associated with that time, so it brings the experience to mind.
The general principle that underlies the effectiveness of retrieval cues is the encoding specificity principle (Tulving & Thomson, 1973): when people encode information, they do so in specific ways. For example, take the song on the radio: perhaps you heard it while you were at a terrific party, having a great, philosophical conversation with a friend. Thus, the song became part of that whole complex experience. Years later, even though you haven’t thought about that party in ages, when you hear the song on the radio, the whole experience rushes back to you. In general, the encoding specificity principle states that, to the extent a retrieval cue (the song) matches or overlaps the memory trace of an experience (the party, the conversation), it will be effective in evoking the memory. A classic experiment on the encoding specificity principle had participants memorize a set of words in a unique setting. Later, the participants were tested on the word sets, either in the same location they learned the words or a different one. As a result of encoding specificity, the students who took the test in the same place they learned the words were actually able to recall more words (Godden & Baddeley, 1975) than the students who took the test in a new setting. In this instance, the physical context itself provided cues for retrieval. This is why it’s good to study for midterms and finals in the same room you’ll be taking them in.
One caution with this principle, though, is that, for the cue to work, it can’t match too many other experiences (Nairne, 2002; Watkins, 1975). Consider a lab experiment. Suppose you study 100 items; 99 are words, and one is a picture—of a penguin, item 50 in the list. Afterwards, the cue “recall the picture” would evoke “penguin” perfectly. No one would miss it. However, if the word “penguin” were placed in the same spot among the other 99 words, its memorability would be exceptionally worse. This outcome shows the power of distinctiveness that we discussed in the section on encoding: one picture is perfectly recalled from among 99 words because it stands out. Now consider what would happen if the experiment were repeated, but there were 25 pictures distributed within the 100-item list. Although the picture of the penguin would still be there, the probability that the cue “recall the picture” (at item 50) would be useful for the penguin would drop correspondingly. Watkins (1975) referred to this outcome as demonstrating the cue overload principle. That is, to be effective, a retrieval cue cannot be overloaded with too many memories. For the cue “recall the picture” to be effective, it should only match one item in the target set (as in the one-picture, 99-word case).
We are more likely to be able to retrieve items from memory when conditions at retrieval are similar to the conditions under which we encoded them. Context-dependent learning refers to an increase in retrieval when the external situation in which information is learned matches the situation in which it is remembered. Godden and Baddeley (1975) conducted a study to test this idea using scuba divers. They asked the divers to learn a list of words either when they were on land or when they were underwater. Then they tested the divers on their memory, either in the same or the opposite situation. As you can see in Figure 15, the divers’ memory was better when they were tested in the same context in which they had learned the words than when they were tested in the other context.
You can see that context-dependent learning might also be important in improving your memory. For instance, you might want to try to study for an exam in a situation that is similar to the one in which you are going to take the exam. Whereas context-dependent learning refers to a match in the external situation between learning and remembering, state-dependent learning refers to superior retrieval of memories when the individual is in the same physiological or psychological state as during encoding. Research has found, for instance, that animals that learn a maze while under the influence of one drug tend to remember their learning better when they are tested under the influence of the same drug than when they are tested without the drug (Jackson, Koek, & Colpaert, 1992). And research with humans finds that bilinguals remember better when tested in the same language in which they learned the material (Marian & Kaushanskaya, 2007). Mood states may also produce state-dependent learning. People who learn information when they are in a bad (rather than a good) mood find it easier to recall these memories when they are tested while they are in a bad mood, and vice versa. It is easier to recall unpleasant memories than pleasant ones when we’re sad, and easier to recall pleasant memories than unpleasant ones when we’re happy (Bower, 1981; Eich, 2008).