• Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

Trace Decay Theory

Free essay example:

Theory of Availability – Trace Decay Theory

a) The trace decay theory argues that memories become less available over time as our brains create a path or ‘trace’ to each memory which, if we don’t rehearse it, will fade away and we will no longer be able to remember it anymore. It argues that once the trace has faded, that particular memory is gone forever. To keep memories available we must constantly revisit and rehearse them. This theory explains the reasons why we remember interesting or meaningful information; however, this theory does not really apply to procedural memories, for example riding a bike, swimming, as once we have learned how to do these processes we rarely forget them.

Ebbinghaus in 1985 carried out an experiment on himself by making himself learn a list of nonsense syllables and then tested his recall over time intervals. The intervals ranged from 10 minutes up to 30 days, and he found that the longer the duration, the less words he could recall. Ebbinghaus concluded that over time, the trace faded and the list of syllables was lost. However, there are some criticisms of this experiment, one being that he was the only participant so it is hard to make a generalisation from such a small sample. A further criticism of his experiment was using himself as a participant which could lead to experimenter bias. He knew what his aims and results were, so there was a possibility of demand characteristics.

Overall, the criticisms of the trace decay theory are that we cannot physically see the trace so it is impossible to prove, neither can we test to see whether information has permanently faded away as it might just be that we cannot remember the information at that point in time. Also, this theory can be seen as more of a prediction than a theory as there is not much evidence to support it. And information is not always forgotten despite not being revisited often, which shows that not all memories fade away. Not all forgetting may be caused by decay, it could be more of an accessibility issue than an availability as we have many interfering events to do with learning and recall.

b) According to the trace decay theory, learning something creates an engram in our brain which gradually fades over time. The theory says that as we learn new information, it interferes with previous information, and therefore the engram grows fainter until we cannot recall it anymore.

Peterson and Peterson (1959) used the Brown and Peterson technique (where participants were asked to recall trigrams, but after the presentation asked to count backwards in threes) to support the trace decay model. This technique found that the counting caused forgetting, and Peterson and Peterson suggested that this was because the counting prevents rehearsal taking place which is necessary to replenish the engram before it decays completely. However, this could also be explained by displacement; as the participants were counting backwards, the numbers were being stored in their short term memory and therefore displacing the trigrams.

Procedural memory shows little effect of trace decay, i.e. when you learn to swim you do not forget how even years later.

One problem with testing the trace theory is that you can never see and evidence of an imprint on the brain, so we cannot tell whether it really exists or not. Also, procedural memories are rarely forgotten, so this cannot apply to all forms of remembering.

Bahrick’s (et.al) study goes against the trace decay theory. In his experiment, Bahrick tested participant’s memory for class mates faces several years after they had graduated from high school. One out of the five pictures was a person that they had graduated with. Bahrick discovered that 90% of participants were identifying their classmates correctly, even those who had graduated more than 40 years previously. So, trace decay did not happen in this case.

c) Craik and Tulving conducted an experiment in which they tested participants by asking them three sets of questions in the categories rhyming, structural and meaningful. They were asked very simple questions such as ‘does this word start with a capital letter?’ and then the results were recorded. Craik and Lockhart decided that the semantic words they tested the participants on were processed more deeply than the other words as they had meaning to the participants. However, the recall may have been better in some participants as the words may have had a previous significance to them, for example if one of the words was ‘garden’ and their occupation involved gardening, then the recall may have been better for that word. Also, Craik and Lockhart were trying to prove that there was only one memory store, and this experiment does not prove that, as there may be three stores but each having a different capacity.

A further limitation of Craik and Tulving’s experiment is the duration, which is relatively short. It didn’t test short term memory over a period of hours or weeks. It is also limited as to whom the results can generalise to. The assumption is that only adults process this way. It doesn’t consider all of the senses, just sight, nor the individual learning style of each participant. Even the deep condition is not really meaningful, so will the information really stay in the long term memory?

Rachel Nash 12.6

This student written piece of work is one of many that can be found in our AS and A Level Cognitive Psychology section.

(?)

Here's what a star student thought of this essay

4 star(s)

Response to the question

The student provides a thorough discussion of Trace Decay Theory including good description and evaluation points, referring to various psychology research studies to back up their points. This essay begins with a brilliant introduction, which provides accurate background information of ...

Read full review

Response to the question

The student provides a thorough discussion of Trace Decay Theory including good description and evaluation points, referring to various psychology research studies to back up their points. This essay begins with a brilliant introduction, which provides accurate background information of Trace Decay Theory (e.g. our brains create a path or ‘trace’ to each memory which, if we don’t rehearse, will fade away), as well as an insight into the issues that will be explored in the essay to set the scene for the reader (e.g. This theory explains the reasons why we remember interesting or meaningful information; however, this theory does not really apply to procedural memories…).

Level of analysis

A good level of analysis is provided from the student – for example, they use a study to discuss Trace Decay Theory: Ebbinghaus’ study is described accurately, but then further evaluation is provided by outlining its limitations (e.g. experimenter bias, demand characteristics). This is a simple, but effective way, of showing critical analysis skills, for each example you make – you should describe it, evaluate it, and link it back to the question. To achieve this fully, the student here could have added a simple sentence to explicitly relate back to the question to ensure it is clear how the information is relevant (e.g. the limitations of the experiment mean that the empirical support for Trace Decay Theory is not sound). Furthermore, the student goes on to nicely include other research studies which both support and dispute Trace Decay Theory (e.g. Bahrick et al.), this is important as it shows the student’s ability to objectively weigh up both sides of the discussion, and then evaluate the evidence for each.

Quality of writing

It is good to see the student provide dates with their examples, however these can be laid out ever so slightly differently, instead of writing “Ebbinghaus is 1985” it is normal practice to just write “Ebbinghaus (1985)” and will save you a few words over the course of the essay! A major downfall of this essay is the lack of a concluding paragraph, this is an essential part of any essay as it is the point in which an overarching judgement can be made on all the points discussed to demonstrate a clear, and rational understanding of the topic. This essay is laid out in 3 parts (a,b, & c) which may partially explain this – although, if it is the case I would still recommend a clear concluding sentence or two for each part.


Did you find this review helpful? Join our team of reviewers and help other students learn

Reviewed by lcarter17 28/03/2012

Read less
Not the one? Search for your essay title...
  • Join over 1.2 million students every month
  • Accelerate your learning by 29%
  • Unlimited access from just £6.99 per month

Related AS and A Level Psychology Skills and Knowledge Essays

See our best essays

Related AS and A Level Cognitive Psychology essays

  1. Marked by a teacher

    To retain recall, which is more beneficial, rote rehearsal or imagery?

    4 star(s)

    trace Fades or lack of cues. Craik & Lockhart (1972) developed the levels of processing approach, which consisted of a, structural/shallow (what it looks like?) b, phonetic level (what it sounds like?) c, semantic level (what it means?). They discovered that semantic approach was the most important feature out of all the processes.

  2. Marked by a teacher

    Psychology Revision Notes - list of major experiments

    3 star(s)

    -Mental reinstatement of original context- The interviewer encourages the interviewee to mentally recreate the environment and contacts from the original incident. -Changing the order- The interviewer may try alternative ways through the timeline of the incident. -Changing the perspective- The interviewee is asked to recall the incident from multiple perspectives.

  1. Critically assess Piaget's theory of cognitive development

    Piaget's theory has been countered by many psychologists over the years, however its main strength still lies in the fact that the theory accounts for both biological and environmental factors in the development of cognitive intelligence. His studies have also meant that much more research has been carried out into cognitive development, which has increased overall understanding of the subject.

  2. A comparison of the ability of males and females to control their attentional processes

    same place in each repeat * The use of the same researcher * The selection of participants from sixth form to ensure a minimum ability of English Participants The study will use 13 male and 13 female participants between the ages of 17 and 18, all from Sandown High School on the Isle of Wight.

  1. Stroop Effect

    Repeated measures design was used. This is where all the participants would be used for each condition of the study. (E.g. noun words and colour words) The advantages of repeated measures design are that there are no problems with individual differences.

  2. Recall in Memory Using Mnemonics

    Target Population: School students aged 15-18 The sample population chosen was na�ve to the true nature of the experiment and had no Psychology background, as this would affect their responses to the tasks. The Participants were allocated top their groups by choosing number cards (1=control, 2=experimental).

  1. Memory: Rote Rehearsal and Mental Imagery.

    Bower's experiment can be used for the basis for my own memory experiment. The aim of this research is to replicate Bower's study and investigate the effect of mental imagery and rote rehearsall on memory. Therefore my hypothesis is based on Bowers findings: that imagery will be a better form of memorization then rehearsal as that is what bower found.

  2. Investigating the short-term memory

    By 30 seconds, the word list has all been read out. The 10 words were read out again at the same pace, and altogether, 60 seconds was used in calling out the words. The stopwatch was stopped after the words were all called out.

  • Over 160,000 pieces
    of student written work
  • Annotated by
    experienced teachers
  • Ideas and feedback to
    improve your own work