In psychology, memory inhibition is the ability not to remember irrelevant information. Memory inhibition is a critical component of an effective memory system. For example, imagine if, when a person tried to remember where he had parked his car, every place he had ever parked his car came to mind; this would not be beneficial. In order to remember something, therefore, it is essential not only to activate the relevant information, but also to inhibit irrelevant information.
There are many memory phenomena that seem to involve inhibition, although there is often debate about the distinction between interference and inhibition.
Presenting a subset of previously learned items as retrieval "cues" often impairs recall for the remaining information (Roediger, 1973; Slamecka, 1968).
Retrieving one exemplar from a set of learned items in a category can impair memory for the other exemplars (Anderson, Bjork, & Bjork, 1994). In this paradigm, participants are first asked to learn a set of category-exemplar word pairs (e.g., Fruit-Orange, Fruit-Banana, Tool-Pliers). In a retrieval practice phase, they then are cued to retrieve some of the exemplars (e.g., fill in the blank: Fruit-Or____). Finally, they are asked to retrieve all of the exemplars (e.g., fill in the blanks: Fruit-Or____, Fruit-Ba______, Tool-Pl______, etc.). In this example, retrieving "orange" would decrease the likelihood participants would retrieve "banana" but not the likelihood they would retrieve "pliers."
Think/no-think task and intentional memory suppression
During 1990s, when the recovered memory debate was raging, cognitive psychologists were dubious about whether specific memories could be repressed. One stumbling block was that repression had not been demonstrated in a research study. While it does not address the question of whether traumatic memories can be suppressed, a study by Anderson and Green (2001) provides evidence of intentional memory suppression in a lab study. Participants were trained with a list of unrelated word pairs (such as ordeal-roach), so they could respond with the second member of the pair (roach) when they saw the other member (ordeal). Then, on each trial in the think/no-think phase, one of the cues from each pair (e.g., ordeal) would appear on the screen, either in red or green. Green would indicate the participant should say the other member of the pair (e.g., roach). Red would indicate they should look at the cue but NOT think about or say the associated word. The more frequently participants had tried to not think about a particular word, the less likely they were to retrieve it on a final memory test. Importantly for the inhibition argument, this impairment even occurred when participants were given an "independent probe" test, for example, asked to fill in the blank: insect-r_____.
Rebound effect after mental control
In contrast with Anderson's think/no-think task, in which people do successfully inhibit associated words, when people are asked not to think about something, such as "don't think about a white bear," they can suppress thoughts of white bears for a little while, but when they stop trying, suddenly they find themselves thinking of white bears. This rebound effect has been found to occur in dreams after a day of trying not to think of something, as well.
What might explain the difference between the think/no-think successful inhibition and the rebound effect seen after trying not to think of a white bear? One possibility is that in the think/no-think procedure, participants are asked not to think of the word linked with another word (e.g. "ordeal"). However, when the control process specifies the thing to be suppressed (for instance, if someone tried not to think of a roach), that control process itself is a reminder of the thing to be avoided. This is an ironic aspect of this type of mental control: what eventually reminds the person of roaches is the very control process that is trying to coordinate the suppression of thoughts of roaches.
Aging and impaired inhibitory processes
Older adults show impairments on tasks that require inhibiting irrelevant information in working memory, and these impairments may lead to problems in a variety of contexts (e.g., Zacks, Hasher, & Li, 2000).
- Anderson's Memory Control Laboratory
- Daniel Wegner's Thought Suppression Papers
- Neural Systems Underlying the Suppression of Unwanted Memories
- Emotional part-set cueing effects
- Anderson, M. C, Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1994). Remembering can cause forgetting: Retrieval dynamics in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20, 1063-1087.
- Anderson, M. C., & Green, C. (2001). Suppressing unwanted memories by executive control. Nature, 410, 366-369.
- Roediger, H. L. (1973). Inhibition in recall from cuing with recall targets. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12, 644-657.
- Rundus, D. (1973). Negative effects of using list items as recall cues. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 12, 43-53.
- Slamecka, N. J. (1968). An examination of trace storage in free recall. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 76, 504-513.
- Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. New York: Viking/Penguin.
- Wegner, D. M., & Wenzlaff, R. M. (1996). Mental control. In E. T. Higgins & A. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic mechanisms and processes (pp. 466-492). New York: Guilford.
- Zacks, R. T., Hasher, L., & Li, K. Z. H. (2000). Human memory. In F. I. M. Craik & T. A. Salthouse (Eds.), The Handbook of Aging and Cognition, pp. 293-258.