The encoding specificity principle provides a framework for understanding how contextual information affects memory and recall. The principle, proposed by researchers Thomson and Tulving, states that memory is most effective when information available at encoding is also present at retrieval.
The principle explains why a subject is able to recall a target word as part of an unrelated word pair at retrieval with much more accuracy when prompted with the unrelated word than if presented with a semantically related word that was not available during encoding. In addition, people benefit equally from a weakly related cue word as from a strongly related cue word during a recall task, provided the weakly related word was present at encoding. Specific encoding operations determine what is to be stored, which in turn verifies which retrieval cues are effective in providing access to that which was stored.
This principle has important implications for what you can say about memory. Because it is the interaction of both encoding and retrieval that is important, it means that you cannot make any statement about the mnemonic properties of an item or a type of processing or a cue unless you specify both the encoding and the retrieval conditions (Tulving, 1983). Thus, you cannot say things like:
- Recognition is easier than recall
- Deep processing is better than shallow processing
- Pictures are recalled better than words
These statements are all meaningless because the encoding and retrieval conditions are not mentioned. It is easy to create situations in which recall is easier than recognition (Watkins & Tulving, 1975), shallow processing leads to better memory than deep processing (Morris, Bransford, & Franks, 1977), and words are recalled better than pictures (Weldon & Roediger, 1988).
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