On the Status of Cue Independence as a Criterion for Memory Inhibition: Evidence Against the Covert Blocking Hypothesis

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Abstract

Retrieving memories can impair recall of other related traces. Items affected by this retrieval-induced forgetting (RIF) are often less accessible when tested with independent probes, a characteristic known as cue independence. Cue independence has been interpreted as evidence for inhibitory mechanisms that suppress competing items during retrieval (M. C. Anderson & Spellman, 1995). Several authors, however, have proposed that apparent cue independence might instead reflect noninhibitory cue-dependent blocking mechanisms. In this view, when participants receive an independent probe test, they do not limit themselves to those probes but instead recall study cues covertly to aid performance. This strategy is thought to be self-defeating, because it reintroduces cues that instigate blocking, lending the appearance of generalized inhibition. M. C. Anderson (2003), in contrast, proposed that covert cuing masks cue-independent forgetting by providing a compound cuing advantage. Here, we replicated cue-independent RIF and documented how access to the original study cues influences this effect. In Experiments 1–2, we found that overtly providing category cues on independent probe tests never increased RIF. Indeed, when we provided categories selectively for items that should suffer the most blocking, a sizable reversal of RIF occurred, consistent with the masking hypothesis. Simply asking participants to covertly retrieve categories eliminated cue-independent RIF, contradicting predictions of the self-inflicted blocking account. Far from causing cue-independent forgetting, covert cuing masks it. These findings strongly support the inhibition account of RIF and, importantly, may explain why cue-independent forgetting is not always found.

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