Memory inhibition has been the subject of much thought and, in this century, much research. Laboratory findings of inhibition to date, however, have virtually all involved creating an incongruity between the study and test contexts, the conditions under which a memory is formed and those under which it is evinced. Studies reported here demonstrate what can be construed as a qualitatively different type of memory inhibition, one that is in some sense context-free.
When a just-studied word is tested for recall with word-fragment cues of successively increasing strength (e.g., R------P; R----R-P; R-I--R-P; R-I--ROP), each presented for 4 seconds, performance is impaired compared to when only the strongest fragment cue (R-I--ROP) is presented for 4 seconds, even though in the first case there is additional opportunity for subjects to recall the word (RAINDROP). Indeed, level of performance varies systematically with initial cue strength. Thus, for example, if cuing starts with a 3-letter fragment, the word is recalled less often than if it starts with a 4-letter fragment but more often than if it starts with a 2-letter fragment. Moreover, the effect remains essentially undiminished even if subjects are allowed an additional full minute with the critical cue (R-I--ROP). Since the procedure used here involves manipulating only the graphemic aspects of a given word and not the context in which it was learned, the inhibition is context-free. The inhibition is discussed in light of a theoretical distinction (Mandler, 1980) between elaboration and integration processes in list learning.
Another finding of interest is that no such inhibitory effect occurs when the to-be-discovered words are not studied before the test. When subjects try to complete the word fragments on the basis of their general knowledge of words, or "semantic memory," performance between the successive and single-level cuing conditions does not differ. The overall pattern of results therefore provides strong support for the episodic-semantic memory distinction formulated by Tulving (1972).