Good Essay About Encoding Specificity

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Recall, Time, Debate, Theory, Learning, Psychology, Information, Emotions

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/11/15

Encoding specificity

The memory discourse in psychology is a widely contested subject between different competing theoretical paradigms. The abstract nature of memory, and the inherent challenges of generating robust data in this typically slowly evolving discipline, has resulted in considerable ambiguities and a lack of common understanding of the conceptual basis of theories and the experiments that purport to support these theories. Based on a review of literature, this work provides evidence and arguments to substantiate encoding specificity as the fundamental principle that underpins human memory.
Encoding specificity


This work is based on literature review of the contentious memory debate in Psychology, The focus of the larger memory debate centers on a set of questions. What makes the human memory so selective? Why do we remember some things more easily than others? Which conditions make for a particularly strong recall? How do cues function? The literature review provides ample evidence showing primacy of encoding specificity as the fundamental concept underlying information storage, retrieval and recall.


Apart from the experimental findings that primarily drive the memory debate, the myriad of conflicting positions on this subject has largely depended on how people relate to those findings. Emergence of proof of concept in a subject that is as abstract as memory is typically slow and challenging. (Tulving & Craik, 2000) Owing to the inherent challenges, there is generally a paucity of objective evidence (robust data). Resort to subjective criteria, therefore, is in large part responsible for the profound ambiguities that mire the memory debate. Ability to discern the subtle (yet vital) differences in the nature of questions asked (what, who or how), then, becomes a critical factor in determining individual research agendas. (Tulving & Thomson, 1973) Often the talking points of the debate, the questions asked, or, the controversies raised, are not understood in their totality. For example, questions that belie an ignorance of the similarities (or dissimilarities) between what would appear at first sight as, contradictory (or synonymous) concepts. (Tulving & Craik, 2000)
Encoding specificity
The framework for memory research involves three component elements, i.e., encoding of information, an intermediate retention phase and the final retrieval phase. (Tulving & Thomson, 1973) Encoding specificity principle provides a framework for understanding the influence of context (e.g., physical environment, emotion, etc.) on a particular memory event. (Kalat, 2002) The principle specifies that recall of memory is enhanced if the contextual elements at the time of recall are the same as that present at the time of encoding. (Tulving & Thomson, 1973) (Tulving & Craik, 2000) As a hypothetical example, a student’s examination performance will be better if the test was conducted in the same room where the student took his lectures.
The proponents of this principle claimed that for learning new information, mental association of that event is important. This phenomenon is universally applicable, be it at a sub conscious or conscious level. The nature of stimulus could be anything perceived or manifest at the time of learning. (visual/auditory/emotional etc.) (Tulving & Thomson, 1973)

Memory lab

Research into memory has led to a number of variations of the typical task wherein a subject’s recall performance is measured based on a cue that was presented earlier. The logic that mind does not recall what it doesn’t recognize appears intuitive on the face of it and therefore had the backing of classical theorists. This conviction was based, among other things, on experimental demonstration of stronger recognition than recall in memory tests. (Tulving & Thomson, 1973) The two-stage theory is based on the premise that recalling any event is a two-staged process (recall and recognition) while recognition only entails the latter. The landmark experiments by Tulving & Thomas (1973) and Watkin & Tulving (1975) demonstrated failure of recognition of words that were, nonetheless, recallable.
A plethora of studies have sought to manipulate encoding on the basis of the triumvirate effect on encoding, i.e., cognitive state that is induced as part of the experiment, the assigned task, and the modalities of the stimulus.
Tulving and Thomson (1973), claimed that for learning new information, mental association of that event is important. This mental association facilitates recalling of that event at a later time. This phenomenon is universally applicable, be it at a sub conscious or conscious level. The nature of stimulus could be anything perceived or manifest at the time of learning, including, visual, auditory, olfactory, emotional state, etc. (Tulving & Thomson, 1973) Kalat, 2002)
Another support for encoding specificity comes from the role of emotional state as a cue for recall. Further, the intensity of association at the time of an event is in direct proportion to the memory. (Tulving & Thomson, 1973) (Kalat, 2002) This is a fact that needs no argument, since we all tend to vividly remember the events that made us highly emotional at that time.
This viewpoint refutes the ‘Association hypothesis’ that accords primacy to the role of associative connections between words (semantic, phonetic or visual) that were formed prior to the primary event. In essence, the association hypothesis denies any role of contextual elements as retrieval clues.
We usually forget countless daily events. However, events that were frightening or stimulating tend to remain deeply etched in memory. The effect of emotional arousal on memory grants legitimacy to the encoding specificity theory. (Thieman, 1984) (Kalat, 2002) Moreover, the understanding of encoding specificity principle appears to be manifest since centuries. The best example comes from early 17th century England, where the illiteracy made people improvise a peculiar custom to document important deals in the collective memory. (Kalat, 2002) Thus, for example, in the event of a property sale, a special ceremony would be held to announce the deal in the presence of community members. Not surprisingly, then, children were kicked by adults while being told about the deal. The rationale was compelling – learnt in a state of arousal, the details of the deal are not likely to be forgotten in a hurry. (Kalat, 2002)
The physiological mechanism through which emotional arousal works to improve memory is well acknowledged. The release of hormones (catecholamines, steroidal hormones) induce a neurovascular ecosystem favorable for encoding. (Kalat, 2002) Furthermore, experiments have shown that a word may be recognized in one context but not in another context. More importantly, this phenomenon is not restricted to polysemous nouns. (Wiseman & Tulving, 1975) This strongly suggests that a word gets encoded in a particular context (or meaning). A typical example is the word ‘black’. Another example is ‘jam’ which can be in the context of traffic jam or in the context of fruit jam. As mentioned earlier such experiments have been replicated on many an occasion.
Tulvig demonstrated the impairment of memory resulting from variable encodings. In his experiment, in the event of mismatch he was able to show evidence of poor memory. Similar findings were reported in an experiment where participants were asked to categorize faces based on perceived pleasantness. (or the lack of it) Another set of subjects was tasked with categorization by sex. The study showed that the manner in which a task is oriented has a bearing on memory.


It is likely that the debate centered on memory will not end anytime soon. Among the factors that have fuelled the debate, the typically slow pace of generating objective data and subjectivity in inferring the results appear to be key. Based on a review of published literature, this work cites evidence to support the fundamental role of the principle of encoding specificity in storing, retrieving and recalling memory.


Kalat, J. W. (2002). Memory (Chapter 7). In Introduction to psychology (6th Ed., pp. 239-251). Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth-Thomson Learning.
Thieman, T.J. (1984). A classroom demonstration of encoding specificity. Teaching of Psychology. 11. 101-102 (7)
Tulving E and Craik, Fergus I.M. (2000). The Oxford Handbook of Memory. Oxford University Press, New York. United States
Tulving, E., & Thomson, D. M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review, 80, 352–373.
Wiseman, S and Tulving E. (1975). A test of confusion theory of encoding specificity. Journal of Verbal learning and Learning Behavior; 14, 370-381.
Zelenberg R (2005). Encoding specificity manipulations do affect retrieval from memory. Acta Psychologica; 119: 107-121.

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