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Environmental context-dependent memory: A review and meta-analysis

Abstract

To address questions about human memory’s dependence on the coincidental environmental contexts in which events occur, we review studies of incidental environmental context-dependent memory in humans and report a meta-analysis. Our theoretical approach to the issue stems from Glenberg’s (1997) contention that introspective thought (e.g., remembering, conceptualizing) requires cognitive resources normally used to represent the immediate environment. We propose that if tasks encourage processing of noncontextual information (i.e., introspective thought) at input and/or at test, then both learning and memory will be less dependent on the ambient environmental contexts in which those activities occur. The meta-analysis showed that across all studies, environmental context effects were reliable, and furthermore, that the use of noncontextual cues during learning (overshadowing) and at test (outshining), as well as mental reinstatement of appropriate context cues at test, all reduce the effect of environmental manipulations. We conclude that environmental context-dependent memory effects are less likely to occur under conditions in which the immediate environment is likely to be suppressed.

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Smith, S.M., Vela, E. Environmental context-dependent memory: A review and meta-analysis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 8, 203–220 (2001). https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03196157

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Keywords

  • Retention Interval
  • Context Effect
  • Memory Trace
  • Environmental Context
  • Eyewitness Identification