Q.What is encoding specificity hypothesis? Explain why the effect of context is not always consistent. Discuss the “outshining hypothesis” in this regard. 15.

5 thoughts on “Memory”

  1. Encoding specificity hypothesis assumes that memory of an information is better recollected if the retieval cues match the cues that were present at the time of learning. In other words, context in which information is learnt plays an important role in its retrieval. This hypothesis has been supported by studies conducted by Godden & Baddeley (1975), which showed that deep sea divers, when made to learn information underwater, were able to recall it better when placed under the same setting as compared to a different setting or context (such as on land).

    However, few modern researches suggest that the effect of context is not consistent across all situations. In many cases, it was found that the availability of other cues which were better than the contexual cues overshadowed the effect of the latter. This is known as the “Outshining Hypothesis” which is based on the idea that when non contexual cues are used to guide the memory, the effects of contexual cues are diminished or eliminated. (Smith & Vela, 1986). For example, in recognition tests contexual cues may occupy a backseat because item cues are available to lead the participants to the correct response. Therefore, memory performance in a recognition task is less dependent on the contexual cues as compared to memory performance in a recall task (where only cue available is the contexual cue). Thus, item cues in recognition task “outshine” the contextual cues.

    1. Nicely answered..
      Even the content of the encoded material itself, could be clubbed under non-contextual cues. Elaborately encoded material, therefore, may also show outshining effect with respect to the context?

  2. Encoding Specificity Hypothesis (ESH) by Tulving refers to improvement in episodic memory when similar contextual cues are present during both encoding and retrieval.


    Baddley in his experiment on underwater learning showed that contextual cues can help to remember better.

    Example of application of ESH/ contextual cues:

    Taking mock tests in exam-simulating conditions can improve exam scores.


    Though encoding specificity is generally accepted, many researchers have questioned the mechanism and consistency of ESH:

    1. Nairne: in an experiment showed that Diagnostic Value of retrieval cues is a better predictor of memory performance than absolute encoding- retrieval match.

    Nairne holds that successful recall depends on DISTINCTIVENESS of retrieval cue rather than just similar context.

    2. Postman: He showed that ESH can not be generalized

    3. Bjork: He showed that recall is not efficient if SEMANTICALLY related cue is not present.


    Baddley, Duncan & Godden showed that we resort to contextual cues only when better cues are unavailable.

    While contextual cues are best for free-recall tests of memory, other cues not related to environment (ESH) OUTSHINE or overshadow contextual cues in recognition tests.

    Thus encoding specificity works on the basis of not only context, but also distinctiveness, diagnostic value, semantics etc. So the effect of context on memory is not consistent but varies depending on many factors.

    1. Only episodic memory? Are you sure about this? Content of the answer is almost appropriate. Simply your presentation. Postman research for example does not enrich your answer here…

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