Monday, 6 February 2017

COLLEGE ESSAYS Compare and contrast two theories of forgetting.

There are many theories as to why people forget. This essay will analyse two of these theories: repression and decay.

To understand why we forget, we must recall the distinction between availability and accessibility. In terms of the multi store model, since information must be transferred from short-term memory (STM) to long-term memory (LTM) for storage:

availability mainly concerns STM and the transfer of information from STM to LTM
accessibility has to do mainly with LTM.

Forgetting can occur at the encoding, storage or retrieval stages. (Gross, 2010 p268)

First of all this essay will look at Repression.

Repression was first introduced in the psychological sense in 1806 by German philosopher and psychologist Johann Friedrich Herbart. (Coleman, A. 2009)

In Psychoanalysis, repression is defined as; the rejection from consciousness of painful or disagreeable ideas, memories, feelings, or impulses. (

This definition implies that the memory is there but is inaccessible.

Repression is also known as motivated forgetting. It is an unconscious action that causes retrieval failure.

Repression is a defence mechanism employed by someone who has encountered some sort of traumatic event whether that be the child who is the victim of abuse of sorts or a criminal who has committed a heinous crime.

The level of 'forgetting' in repression can vary from a temporary abolition of uncomfortable thoughts to a high level of amnesia, where events that caused the anxiety are buried very deep. (Gardner 2006)

In 1915, Freud wrote a frequently quoted definition as follows: “The essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance from the conscious”.

Eysenck and Wilson (1973) and Parkin (1982) suggested that rather than being repressed, memories are simply blocked and can be recovered after some period of time.

Repression is a difficult theory causes constant debate. One such instance of this is the idea that abuse victims create false memories as a way of coping with memories of such trauma.

Another theory of forgetting is decay. This theory tries to explain why forgetting increases with time (Gross 2010)

Decay occurs within both STM and LTM. In STM, it is believed that decay occurs when information is not rehearsed thus preventing a permanent structural change in memory. Studies based on the Brown-Peterson technique support this theory. On the other hand, the Peterson-Peterson experiment suggests that memory loss is caused by interference.

In 1974, Reitman developed a technique that attempts to eliminate the influence of interference. Participants were shown 5 lists of words for two seconds each and then asked to listen for a feint tone (via headphones) for 15 seconds. The aim of this experiment was to see whether new information was prevented from entering the STM and also prevented rehearsal. Whilst the recall rate decreased by 24% over the 15 seconds and Reitman claimed that this was due to decay, there is no evidence to suggest that no new information entered the STM within this time.

There has been research conducted into the theory of decay which states that information can be lost if not used over a long period of time.

In 1999, Baddeley suggested that riding a bike is a continuous skill where each action cues the next, therefore it is easier to remember whilst McKenna & Glendon (1985) found that cardiac resuscitation requires training monthly to keep the information fresh.

Both of these studies suggest that time is a reason for decay but also suggests that decay is not the only explanation for forgetting.

In conclusion, there are many ideas on the theory of forgetting but no one theory is ultimately conclusive. It is almost impossible to come to one definitive answer as to why we forget and the subject will continue to be researched and debated until one or another theory is proved as the ultimate reason otherwise it will be concluded that there is no one single reason.


Coleman, A, 2009, Oxford Dictionary of Psychology. New York, Oxford University Press.
Freud, S, 1915, Freud, Complete Works – Repression. (

Gardner, H, 2006, Changing Minds; The art and science of changing our own and other people's minds, Boston, Harvard Business School Press

Gross, R, 2010, Psychology, the science of mind and behaviour sixth edition, London, Hodder Education

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