Do familiar memory items decay?

Timothy J. Ricker, Joshua Sandry, Evie Vergauwe, Nelson Cowan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


There is a long-standing debate over whether the passage of time causes forgetting from working memory, a process called trace decay. Researchers providing evidence against the existence of trace decay generally study memory by presenting familiar verbal memory items for 1 s or more per memory item, during the study period. In contrast, researchers providing evidence for trace decay tend to use unfamiliar nonverbal memory items presented for 1 s or less per memory item, during the study period. Taken together, these investigations suggest that familiar items may not decay while unfamiliar items do decay. The availability of verbal rehearsal and the time to consolidate a memory item into working memory during presentation may also play a role in whether or not trace decay will occur. Here we explore these alternatives in a series of experiments closely modeled after studies demonstrating time-based forgetting from working memory, but using familiar verbal memory items in place of the unfamiliar memory items used to observe decay in the past. Our findings suggest that time-based forgetting is persistent across all of these factors while simultaneously challenging prominent views of trace decay.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)60-76
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2020


  • Forgetting
  • Recognition
  • Short-term memory
  • Trace decay
  • Working memory


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