List makers give themselves a reason to forget

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PEOPLE WHO constantly remind themselves to make a phone call or invite someone to dinner are more likely to forget what they wanted to say or buy all the right food than those who take a more relaxed approach to everyday life.

New research has shown that trying to remember facts or tasks by saying them over and over again blocks related memories and induces forgetfulness. The findings show that students who cram for exams or ask colleagues to quiz them before the start will forget vital information for the duration of the test.

Neil Macrae, professor of experimental psychology at Bristol University and author of the report, said: "In anxious situations, such as exams, people employ a range of methods to help them remember. However, although the logic of repeating facts over and over again may seem flawless, this attempt at cramming information into your brain blocks other information temporarily."

For memory to function effectively, the mind has to be able to deal with competing related information. The research, in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved 128 students.

In one experiment they sat a mock geography exam. They were presented with 20 facts about two fictitious islands. The group was divided into two, with one half receiving "cramming" cards to remind them about half of the facts.

When the whole group was tested, those who had crammed could recall more of the latest data given to them, but performed four times as badly on recalling all 20 facts. Psychologists believe these findings have important implications for people trying to forget traumatic memories.

Professor Macrae said: "The victim of abuse will hold both negative and positive memories of the perpetrator. It is likely that the victim will be motivated only to retrieve the good memories not caring to dwell on material that is disturbing. Constant retrieval can serve a valuable function of locking unwanted recollections in memory."

Leading article, Review, page 3