The Encoding Specificity Principle has its roots in the earliest research of memory. When Ebbinghuas first used lists of words, he noted that associations between items aids recall. The internal context of the list matters. We look for any connection that helps us combine items into meaningful units.
Building on the work of Ebbinghaus, researchers using lists on nonsense syllables soon discovered that in addition to internal context, external context makes a difference. The environment can help you generate cues, and when you try to remember in a different environment (with different cues), it is more difficult.
The solution is to choose an encoding environment that is similar to where you must recall it. If you have to remember words on stage, it is best to learn them on stage. If you must remember how to do something under stress, practice it under stress. If you must take a test in a quiet environment, it is best to study in a quiet environment.
Tulving called this general principle of matching encoding and decoding contexts the Encoding Specificity Principle. It says that, in general, it is best to match your encoding context to the recall environment. If you must take a test without caffeine, it is best to study without caffeine. If you must perform in a hot environment, practice in a hot environment.
Tulving showed that retrieving episodic memories (stories of your life) is best when you recall them where you learned them. This is why people who return to their home town or old college can be flooded with memories. Cues they haven’t experienced for years are suddenly present, acting like magic keys to release locked memories. Being in the place where you learned things helps recall them.
For example, it is easiest to remember where your keys are when you are in the same room as they are. This is why when you’ve lost an idea, you go back to where you first had it and it reappears. The location context was giving you cues. Retracing your steps triggers those original cues that were present at encoding.
Location turn out to provide strong cues. This is why people in drug rehab find it so difficult to stay clean in their old haunts. Cues can act as triggers of emotional responses and, ultimately, a return to drug use. Stay out of places where you learned to be a druggie.
British memory researcher Alan Baddeley investigated cue-dependency by studying deep sea divers. The theory was that cold (the deeper you go underwater) acts a cue for learning. Eighteen divers did each of four conditions, counterbalancing the order is which they were presented. Since the divers each acted as their own control, a larger sample wasn’t needed.
The testing conditions were:
- learning under water (20 feet below the surface) and recalling underwater
- learning under water, recalling on land (by the shore)
- learning on land, recalling on land
- learning on land, recalling underwater
In this free recall test, divers remembered best when the learning and remembering conditions matched. The location context cues mattered. It didn’t matter whether it was underwater or on shore, only that the encoding and decoding contexts were the same.
The encoding specificity principle applies to music, smells, and ambient lighting. Matching input environment to output environment improves recall. When in doubt, match them.
But these external context-dependent cues aren’t immutable. You can overcome them. There are two main approaches to reinstating environmental context cues.
First, you can imagine you are underwater when you’re on shore. Baddeley had his divers close their eyes and visualize being underwater. Visualizing removed most of the blockage. Performance wasn’t as good as being underwater but quite close.
Obviously, your ability to visualize makes a difference. If can easily picture yourself in a location, mood or situation, you will do better than those who are less visually oriented. The trick is to consciously generate the environmental cues you’ll need at recall. It may help to take a picture of your classroom from where you sit and prop it up on your desk while you study.
Second, use multiple contexts. Study under quiet and noisy conditions. Study under bright and dim lighting. Study for recognition and recall. The more variations of environmental cues, the less impact they have. If you study in many contexts, none will overpower you.
The Encoding Specificity Principle extends to learning skills too. Learning transfers best between skills that are similar. Learning to sing probably won’t help your tap dancing. Learning your multiplication tables probably won’t help you carve pumpkins. The two skills are too far apart. Far transfer doesn’t work.
In contrast to the far transfer of widely different skills, near transfer aids performance. Waving your arms directing traffic will aid the arm waving ability to conduct an orchestra. The same muscles will get exercised. The same fluid motions will be trained. Remember Pat Morita’s role as Mr. Miyagi? Wax on and wax off are similar arm actions to the defensive moves in karate. This is near transfer.
The caution with near transfer is that it is best to avoid major incompatibilities. In the early days of aviation history, Beechcraft and Cessna had different control systems. In one you pushed the yoke forward to go up. In the other, you pulled it back. Pilots trained in one plane did fine flying the other plane until there was an emergency. When panic set in, pilots would push the controls in the wrong direction. My pilot friends tell me I made up this story but I like it anyway.
In general, pilots should fly. Dancers should practice more on their performance stages. Church choirs should practice where they will perform, not in a rehearsal hall in another building. Actors should have more dress rehearsals. Soldiers should have war games. Identify the performance conditions and match your training to them.