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Motivated Forgetting by Remembering the Way Things Were

December 18, 2013

By Gennaro Pica,  Antonio Pierro, Jocelyn J. Bélanger (La Sapienza, Università di Roma), & Arie Kruglanski (University of Maryland)

Imagine you want to remember an episode from the past, but related memories interfere with the one that you wish to retrieve selectively. If the interference of such unwanted memories is difficult to overcome then you might experience cognitive confusion and your goal-directed retrieval would be undermined. For instance, what if you are trying to remember a former teacher’s name from your childhood, when at the moment of retrieval other teachers’ names come into your mind. How does your mind resolve competition among memories and how does your mind achieve goal-directed retrieval?

Recent research in cognitive psychology suggests the mind is able to recall goal-directed materials through the forgetting of competing unwanted memories, a phenomenon called as retrieval-induced forgetting (Anderson, Bjork & Bjork, 1994). This type of forgetting occurs because the interfering unwanted memories are inhibited and serves a fundamentally adaptive function: Forgetting (by inhibiting) some information may afford remembering other, more useful, information and avoiding unmanageable cognitive confusion.

The human capacity for inhibition and suppression (see Kunda & Spencer, 2003; Shah, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2002) suggests that forgetting need not always be passive (due to memory decay), but may also be driven by an active striving to advance one’s current goals: Inhibiting information that is unnecessary, inappropriate, and irrelevant to one’s current concerns may serve to remember information that is necessary, appropriate, and relevant (Storm, 2011).

Although the goal-directed nature of retrieval-induced forgetting appears to be evident, prior research has neglected its motivational aspects. In our work (Pica, Pierro, Bélanger, & Kruglanski, 2013) recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, we considered the retrieval process as a form of judgment (about the way things were), affected by motivational factors that influence all judgments (e.g., Need for Cognitive Closure; see Kruglanski, 2004). Need for cognitive closure (NfCC) is a motivation to make assured judgments and to protect them from interference. Under a heightened NfCC, individuals tend to become impervious to subsequent information that could potentially undermine their prior judgments and impressions. Retrieval of items from memory requires a focus on the class of items to be recalled and imperviousness to other items that could run interference with the retrieval process. Accordingly, we hypothesized that a heightened NfCC would augment such imperviousness.

We assumed, building our hypotheses based on Cognitive Energetics Theory (CET; Kruglanski, Bélanger, Chen, Köpetz, Pierro, & Mannetti, 2012), that the retrieval process (with its forgetting effects) is energy-dependent and results from a driving force arising from a combination of cognitive resources (available mental energy) and epistemic motivation (Need for Cognitive Closure). The occurrence of such process is contingent on the relative magnitudes of the driving force (resources and epistemic motivation) versus the restraining force, reflecting the magnitude of the activity’s requirements determined by difficulty (task demands) presented by the activity. The higher the restraining force the higher must be the driving force for the activity to operate.

Metaphorically, imagine an athlete that is performing in a pole vault competition: If the pole is posited at an accessible level (e.g. 4,00 m; easy condition), then little aspirations (i.e. motivation) and weak trainings (i.e. resources) is needed in order to jump over this level; if, on the other hand, the pole is posited at an higher level (e.g. near the men’s pole vault world record, 6,14 m; difficulty condition), then very strong motivations (i.e. winning/getting the world record) and very hard training (i.e. high resources) is needed in order to reach this goal.

The results of our two studies offered consistent support for our hypotheses. In Study 1, where difficulty of the inhibitory task was uniformly high, we found that the RIF effect was obtained only where the interfering items were in a high taxonomic category, that is, where they created significant distraction (attentional competition), warranting their inhibition (replicating the competition dependence assumption of RIF, Anderson et al., 1994). Furthermore, a significant amount of RIF appeared to be greater where a high degree of the NfCC was coupled with a relatively ample presence of cognitive resources (i.e., in the circadian match vs. mismatch conditions).

Our second study provided additional evidence for the CET analysis. It replicated the results of Study 1 in a condition where the inhibition difficulty was assumed to be relatively high (i.e., in the two practice retrievals condition), but not in a condition where the inhibition difficulty was assumed to be low (i.e., in the four practice retrievals condition). As in Study 1, where the inhibition difficulty was high, RIF appeared to be greater where high NfCC was coupled with a high degree of cognitive resources. In other words, consistent with the CET, the mere availability of resources did not suffice to produce the RIF effect; instead, motivation was needed to appropriately draw on those resources.

It is of interest to consider how our findings bear on personality and social psychological phenomena. It appears that given sufficient resources, persons who are high on the NfCC (whether as a stable personality trait or because of situational conditions) should exhibit a variety of memory biases by focusing on momentarily (or chronically) accessible category items. For example, they might remember their successes more than their failures, as well as stereotypic traits about persons (e.g., related to their gender, ethnicity, or age) more so than other less accessible details. The combined effects of resources and motivation (e.g., NfCC) in sharpening memory for given categories of material (as reflected by the RIF effect) may have significant interpersonal consequences where the same individuals have different memories of seemingly the same event (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954) leading to disagreements and potential conflicts. Finally, inhibition of interfering items could mean restriction of one’s memory search and false confidence in items that for some reason were highly accessible to the individual. This might limit individuals’ flexibility in interpersonal interaction and reduce their ability to “think on their feet” as it were.

Author Information

Dr. Gennaro Pica

Gennaro Pica has recently completed his PhD in Social Psychology at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Italy. He is now a postdoctoral student at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Italy. His research interests focus on motivated cognition, epistemic motivations and self-regulation.

Prof. Antonio PierroAntonio Pierro is Professor of Social Psychology at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Italy. His current main research interests include power and leadership, persuasion, group processes and self-regulation. In general, his research interests concern the interface motivation and cognition.

Dr. Jocelyn J. BélangerJocelyn J. Bélanger has recently completed his PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Maryland, USA. He is now a postdoctoral student at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Italy. His primary research interests focus on goals, passion, and self-sacrifice.

Prof. Arie W. KruglanskiArie Kruglanski is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland. He is past editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: attitudes and Social Cognition and past editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. He has over 300 publications on topics in motivated cognition and is a founding member of the National Center of Excellence for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism (START).


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Pica, G., Pierro, A., Bélanger, J., & Kruglanski, A.W. (2013). The Motivational Dynamics of Retrieval induced Forgetting: A Test for Cognitive Energetics Theory. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 39, 1530-1541.

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Image Credit: stockimages, published on 02 December 2013, Stock Photo – image ID:

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