Our new draft AQA A Level psychology spec includes Explanations for forgetting in the Memory topic, which means we’ve decided to make a note of this recent research on forgetting (as reported in the BPS Research Digest) before it slips our mind.
In the first part of this research, conducted at Regensburg University, Germany, participants were presented with particular German words and trained, over several trials, to respond to some with a right-handed key press and others with a left-handed key press.
In the second part of the research, the same participants had to categorise the same German words by gender but this time half the words had a key-press requirement that was the opposite of the one the participants had learned in the first half of the study. It makes your brain hurt just to think about it.
As you’d expect, this caused some problems. The participants who went straight on to complete the second part of the experiment got the new commands mixed up with the old ones fairly often – they still remembered what they’d been trained to do when they saw the words the first time, and it was hard to do the opposite.
However, the researchers treated one group of participants a little differently. After they had completed the first part of the experiment, the participants in this group were told that, unfortunately, a computer crash had occurred and they should now just forget everything they’d learned about which key to press when they saw each word; now they’d learn something new. This group then went on to complete the second part of the experiment with no problems at all – any interference from what they’d learned in the first part was completely eliminated.
This research therefore suggests that it is possible to forget recently-formed memories very quickly, with a conscious decision. But you can forget that if you want to.