Use evidence from empirical research to discuss the claim that ‘prior knowledge can be both a help and a hindrance to memory’.
There has been a lot of research exploring the debate on whether prior knowledge is considered to be a help or a hindrance to an individual's memory. According to, Brod, Werkle-Bergner, and Shing (2013) “prior knowledge directly influences cognitive processes that are important for learning and retaining new information in the memory system”. This suggests that prior knowledge could be help to memory to a certain extent in order to learn new information. The claim of prior knowledge helping memory is supported in the research by Kan, Alexander and Verfaellie (2009) which investigates whether the structure of prior knowledge strengthens episodic learning for amnesic patients. This research supports the help claim because they find that prior knowledge is a congruency advantage. In contrast, research by French and Richards (1993) supports the claim that prior knowledge is a hindrance to memory as the study suggests that memory is heavily influenced by an individual’s schematic theory. The study measures the subjects’ tendency to misrepresent a number on a Roman numerals clock face when asked to replicate one they had been shown. Further research by García-Bajos and Migueles (2003) also supports the hindrance claim; the research explored the reason behind people’s tendency to accept typical information despite it being false in the context of a mugging account. The research shows that majority of the subjects remembered false information of the high typicality actions thus supporting the hindrance claim. Based on these three empirical research, this essay will assess the claim on whether prior knowledge is in fact a help or a hindrance to an individual’s memory.
French and Richards’ (1993) research on the influence of schematic theory shows that prior knowledge can be a hindrance to memory. They investigated errors in memory of everyday objects such as, a Roman numerals clock face through the explanation of the schema theory. A schema theory is defined as acquiring new information and categorising this according to Piaget (1952). French and Richards carried out a controlled conditions task where they observed whether subjects misrepresent the number ‘four’ as ‘IV’ rather than ‘IIII’ and whether the influence of their previous schema theory impacted this misrepresentation. In the Surprise Memory Task (SMT) subjects were asked to draw the Roman numerals clock from memory after it being presented for one minute whereas, in the Forewarned Memory Task (FMT), subjects were told beforehand that they would have to draw the clock from memory. Finally, in the Copy Task subjects were shown the clock and asked to copy it while it remained in full view. All subjects had six minutes to draw this clock. They found that, there was no significant difference between the SMT and FMT because nine subjects in the SMT and ten subjects in the FMT had written the number ‘four' as ‘IV’ instead of ‘IIII’. But as the authors had predicted, all subjects in the Copy task got it correct. An explanation that the authors discussed was the possibility of the subjects focusing on the correct time, the numbers or any manufacturer’s details. This shows that, the subjects used their previous schemas and knowledge of Roman numerals to write the number ‘four’ as ‘IV’ rather than ‘IIII’ showing that prior knowledge can heavily affect memory, making their answer wrong. French and Richards’ research supports the strength of schema theory; it demonstrates that schemas affect an individual’s cognition, especially memory and it heavily influences an individual’s recollection. While there are many strengths of the schema theory such as, helping recollection of events and organising an individual’s knowledge, it doesn’t explain how schemas are formed and how an individual chooses their schemas thus, Cohen (1993) argues that the concept of schema theory is too vague. Therefore, schema theory as prior knowledge can be criticised as a valid explanation for hindering memory.
On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that prior knowledge is a help to memory; research by Kan, Alexander and Verfaellie (2009) investigated, whether prior knowledge helps episodic learning or not. In their research, subjects had to study prices that were either congruent or incongruent with prior price knowledge for grocery and household items. They were then given a forced choice recognition test for the studied prices. There were 64 items that were divided into two sets of 32 and each subject would encounter one set in the congruent and one set in the incongruent condition so that items don’t repeat for the subjects. A verbal description and four prices with the photo of each item was displayed and the subjects were told it would be for a memory task. Kan et al. found that the amount of benefit from prior knowledge was dependant on the integrity of long term knowledge. This meant that good prior knowledge was a congruency advantage. They discussed that, rather than using schemas which are already in place to make sense of new information, they use it to shortlist the likely price options in the congruent condition. This suggests that, subjects’ prior knowledge of grocery/household items was an advantage because all MTL patients (patients that have their medial temporal lobes injured, causing their amnesia) did well in the prior knowledge task. This is because, all MTL patients got 89.9% (8.9%) correct in the prior knowledge task. This is evidence that shows the fact the prior knowledge can help memory as the patients had a high level of accuracy.
Brod, Werkle-Bergner, and Shing (2013)’s research suggests a similar claim as they consider prior knowledge to be important as Brod et al. believe it could help memory.
Research by García-Bajos and Migueles (2003) explores why people accept typical information that is false. They explore this in the context of a scripted mock mugging taking place with either highly typical scenarios or low typicality scenarios, in the form of a one-minute audio presented to 86 psychology students (41 subjects in a ‘warning instructions’ condition and 45 in a ‘no-instructions’ condition. After a five-minute break, they were given five minutes to write down as much as they could remember and then they took part in a recognition task where they were give forced two choices (true or false) and then asked to rate their confidence on this. One week later, subjects were called back and subjects in the ‘warning instructions’ condition were warned that one thing is true information (factual) and another is false information (interpretations). In the recall task, the authors found that subjects remembered typical actions correctly but with errors compared to what they recalled of the low typicality scenarios. There was no significant difference between the two groups, this is because the units of recall were, M = 12.31 in the ‘no-instructions’ group and to the recall units for the ‘warning’ group were, M = 11.1. This shows that, prior knowledge helps us understand information better but with errors due to this. Schemas persuade us to accept false information and make us recognise events that didn’t happen. This demonstrates that event schemas are not reliable as the units are evidence to show that peoples knowledge of prior events can cause their witness testimony to be distorted because there were errors. The researchers discuss that subjects recalled the most important aspects of the mugging event and focused this on the highly typical scenarios than than the low typicality actions.
Therefore, it has been shown that prior knowledge is both a help and a hindrance to memory due to the extent of research suggesting both arguments. Prior knowledge is an important part of an individual’s memory as it helps with learning. At the same time, if the prior knowledge is false information, memory can be distorted as defined by event schemas. More recent research suggests that prior knowledge is in fact a help to memory, as demonstrated in Brod et al.’s research. However, there is more weight in the research supporting the claim that prior knowledge is a hindrance to memory. To conclude, prior knowledge is a help to memory to a partial extent however, if the knowledge is false, it is a hindrance to a higher extent.
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*Brod, G., Werkle-Bergner, M., Shing, Y. L. (2013). The Influence of Prior Knowledge on Memory: A Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective. Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience Perspective, 7. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00139
*French, C. C., & Richards, A. (1993). Clock* this ! : An everyday example of a schema driven error in memory. British Journal of Psychology, 84, 249-253.
*García-Bajos, E., & Migueles, M. (2003). False memories for script actions in a mugging account. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 15 (2), 195-208.
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*Kan, I. P., & Alexander, M. P., Verfaellie, M. (2009). Contribution of prior semantic knowledge to new episodic learning in amnesia. NIH Public Access, 21 (5), 938-944. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2009.21066
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