Home > Aging, Attention, Memory > What if you could forget your prom fiasco? The importance of selective forgetting

What if you could forget your prom fiasco? The importance of selective forgetting

Everyone has moments in their life that they wish they could forget. It could be that time that you the bridge gave out during your pictures on the water or the inevitable newspaper article written about it. But what if you could forget the whole thing happened and block out that embarrassing moment out of your memory forever?


(Source here)

Overtime, you might be able to forget that embarrassing event as you age well into your sixties and seventies, but there is no guarantee, especially if it is this fiasco! Aging is associated with forgetting and as you age, you tend to  forget where you put your keys, where you parked your car, or why you walked into a room. Cognitive psychologists are concerned with the process of aging and its relationship to forgetting. What is it about aging that makes you forget more? Some researchers attribute forgetting to something called an inhibitory deficit, meaning that older adults are no longer able to control how they ignore interfering stimuli. The ability to exert control and inhibit irrelevant stimuli is evident in the classic Stroop task. Here, the interfering stimuli are a word and the color of the text. The word could be “blue” but the text of the word is colored pink. The goal of the Stroop task is to state the color of the text and not the word, so a successful trial would be saying “pink” instead of the word itself (blue). To be successful in this task, you need to be able to control and inhibit that interfering stimuli of the word “blue”. Elderly adults have higher error rates because they lack this inhibitory control and report the incorrect response “blue” instead of pink (West & Alain, 2000). Inhibitory processes are also involved in daily cognitive function, for example, when someone introduces herself using the name Jill, you may be thinking about all your friends and relatives that are named Jill as well. In order to remember the name of the new person that just introduced herself to you, you need to inhibit your friends and relatives that share the same name and focus on remembering the new Jill. Due to a decline in cognitive functioning as we age, this process becomes harder for elderly individuals.
Controlling what to focus on and what to tune out is also a part of the executive control of your working memory. Working memory is a type of memory that is concerned with immediate conscious perception and within this category something called the central executive determines what you pay attention to versus what you ignore. A real life example of central executive functioning would be focusing on a computer screen and tuning out that person talking on their phone in the middle of the library. Working memory is very important, but it is not the focus of the study, so if you want to learn more about it here is a link!

The process of controlling what to inhibit and what to focus on that leads Aguirre et al. (2014) to believe that you can selectively forget information, even that time you fell in the water during your prom pictures!

When you hear the word forget, you probably think of something like forgetting where to put your car keys and this type of forgetting is the most widely known and occurs outside of our conscious control, if you could control not to forget where you put your keys, life would be a lot easier! However, researchers now believe that humans can participate in a different and voluntary type of forgetting, selective forgetting. Selective forgetting entails consciously controlling the inhibition of thoughts when prompted to, so if I asked you to forget the sentence you just read, you would be able to do so by using the same inhibitory process shown in the Stroop task. Research on selective forgetting began with the idea that the inhibition of interfering stimuli does indeed occur in the process of forgetting. A primitive list-method directed forgetting (LM-DF) was used first, which involved participants studying one list of words. Immediately after, half the participants were instructed to forget the first list. Participants were given a second list to study and all were told to remember this list. The group that was directed to forget list one recorded higher error rates on list one, meaning that they were forgetting the first list. However, this general list-wide forgetting task does not require specialized inhibitory control and is not specific enough to show age-related differences in older versus younger adults. Current research uses a selective forgetting (SDF) paradigm that is more specific and requires more inhibitory control of stimuli. They hypothesized that because this task is more specific and requires that inhibitory control, researchers would see  age-related differences in older versus younger adults. In this task, the participant is given a first list of short sentences pertaining to the hypothetical characters of “Alex and Tom” and a second list with sentences about “Joe”. The participant is presented both and is then told to forget anything pertaining to the character Tom. A younger adult is able to better selectively forget the sentences that they heard about Tom because they are able to exert inhibitory control on this part of the list, the same premise behind the Stroop task that allows participants to say “pink”. Although a prom fiasco memory could prove to be more difficult to selectively forget because it may have happened years ago and could be in long term memory, it is this process of control that makes us believe that it could be possible.

Aguirre et al. hypothesized that because older adults lack the ability to exert inhibitory control on stimuli such as the competing lists of information with Tom, Alex and Joe, they would not be able to selectively forget. Researchers did three variations of the SDF paradigm  to see if their theory that older adults would not be able to selectively  forget was accurate. The first experiment was identical  to the SDF paradigm described above in which participants were either told to remember all the lists or just forget Tom and in between studying the lists they were given math problems to do in order to prevent rehearsal. The first experiment showed that older adults could not selectively forget the information about Tom and was promising evidence that selective forgetting is absent in older adults. However, this experiment is not definitive because of a general low memory performance of all older adults in this task. Another experiment was conducted to reduce the amount of sentences that participants had to remember so that it would improve the overall memory performance of the older participants. This experiment showed the same results as the first. Researchers then did a new experiment similar to the LM-DF paradigm where participants would forget all of list 1 (Alex and Tom). They hypothesized that when you take away the selective nature of forgetting within list one, older adults and younger adults would do the same on the task. This would prove that list dependent forgetting could be done with all ages; it is just the selectivity of the SDF paradigm that requires higher inhibitory control, causing older adults to lack the ability to selectively forget. This is exactly what happened in the last experiment and there were no comparable differences in the rates of forgetting between younger and older adults, allowing researchers to be confident that selective forgetting is not possible in older adults.

So, if you want to forget your prom fiasco, you had better start selectively forgetting now, because if you wait until you are older it may not work!

Link to the article here


Aguirre, C., Gomez-Ariza, C., Bajo, T., Andres, P., Mazzoni, G. (2014). Selective voluntary forgetting in young and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 29, 128-139. http://0-psycnet.apa.org.library.colby.edu/journals/pag/29/1/128.pdf.

West, R., & Alain, C. (2000). Age-related decline in inhibitory control contributes to the increased Stroop effect observed in older adults. Psychophysiology, 37, 179-189. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/1469-8986.3720179/asset/1469-8986.3720179.pdf?v=1&t=hupxt9x4&s=e0ad4a41d00652141dd8cb95a7c0e85aa1422a73


  1. September 22nd, 2014 at 17:42 | #1

    Like many of the other commenters here, I was wondering about whether or not the participants were really forgetting the information about Tom or just withholding it; it was unclear whether or not they were told Tom was irrelevant or if they were actively trying to inhibit those memories. Thankfully, the exact quote was given in the research paper.

    “At this point you should know that the forthcoming recall task will only test your memory about Alex. Thus, Tom sentences are no longer relevant. To do best on the memory test you should forget all you learned about Tom. Ignoring information about Tom will definitively help you to better recall information about Alex.”

    They handled it pretty much perfectly.
    I also found it interesting that when they talk about using a group of older adults in the study, they mean a group with an average age of about 70. I was scared for a second that memory inhibition would break down by 40 or 50!

    I’m not really sure the study here really applies to the anecdote of the prom fiasco. The kind of forgetting in the experiment done by Aguirre et al. was more about discarding information from short-term memory, whereas suppressing a powerful episodic memory like that would be much more difficult. Especially since it was reported in the news, and it was personal experience and was linked with so much embarressment, it would be very difficult to forget. There’s another post on this blog (Power of Emotions on Memory) that talks about how such an emotional moment would stay vivid in your mind for much longer.
    In the experiment here, the participants learned about random everyday things that Tom did, like “eat a sandwich” or whatever, and were promptly told it was unimportant and they should just forget about it. Probably agreeing, they discarded the information before it even entered long-term memory. It was boring, so it didn’t stand out, and there was no reason to remember it. What I learned from this is that the process of selectively filtering memories out before entering short-term memory gets harder with age. I’m not so sure the same rules apply when I’m trying to forget an infinitely embarressing moment that’s been haunting me.

    As a side note, I think I would probably get a little confused about the experiment if I was told to first read through the words on a list, immediately forget about them because I was told they weren’t important, and then tested on my recall of those words. The participants in that first experiment must have had a quite the confusing day!

  2. May 10th, 2014 at 00:39 | #2

    I like this article! I do understand how it is more likely for younger adults to more easily forget specific memories. It is interesting that they could come up with another test to see the effects of the Stroop Task. I think that they are right, that it isn’t so much about forgetting, but it is more about inhibiting and attentional control. However, I wonder how they actually “forgot” the information. What did they measure this forgetting? Did they use some sort of recall test to see what they remembered from the list? How could they make sure that the participants wouldn’t lie about the test?

    I think that I am interested to know how this “forgetting” has an effect on the patients, and if it is different than repression. How do we know they actually forget the stuff from the story? If they are inhibiting or repressing this information, are they actually forgetting it or just not attending to it? What do they actually define as forgetting? Is it consciously not remembering information or is it repression? This would be an interesting follow up study I think, because it could tap more into the memory processes and potentially show us what the distinction is between forgetting and repressing and the potential disadvantages of both.

  3. May 9th, 2014 at 23:00 | #3

    This was an interesting article to learn about. Selective forgetting is an interesting concept, especially after learning about just how fallible memory really is. It seems a funny concept to have to TRY to forget things. However, I can certainly see the application you applied here. The only question I did have was about the experiment. You talk about how in the test the participants were asked to “forget” all the information about Tom. Your article leaves me curious about how they tested this. Did they ask questions pertaining to both characters and see if the participants only recall one person? I suppose I simply wonder if the participants were really forgetting the information selectively, or if they were just holding onto the other information purposefully and, more so, purposely inhibiting the other information.

  4. May 8th, 2014 at 16:36 | #4

    I thought that this post was very well written. Your explanation of the stroop task was explained very well for people who have never taken cognitive psychology. I thought this connected with the post about people needing to sleep before exams because of the decline in executive control. I would be interested to see if people who have a lack of sleep would look like the adults who are trying to selectively forget. I also wonder if this has any implications on crimes or traumatic incidences. If someone is trying to selectively forget something like that it seems like it almost parallels Freud’s idea of repression. It would be cool to see if once you selectively forget something you have to continue to exert effort to forget about it, or at some point you literally just don’t remember and even if someone tries to remind you your memory isn’t jogged.

  5. May 8th, 2014 at 14:01 | #5

    I had no idea that we could chose to forget what we want, so this article was rather interesting to me. However, I wonder how they prompted the participants to forget the “Tom” list. If I tell myself to forget something, it seems to have almost the opposite effect. Also, I thought the connection between the Stroop task and true memory was interesting, since we only know how it relates to false memory. Attention is essentially the basis of cognitive processes, so I find it interesting to relate attention to different aspects of cognitive psychology. But I found it confusing as to how interfering stimuli didn’t help the adults forget, since they could potentially process irrelevant information into memory. This interference could potentially alter past experiences (retroactive interference). It would also be more interesting to know a little more about the SDF paradigm, and how it better relates to the Stroop task.

  6. May 8th, 2014 at 13:00 | #6

    I found this article to be interesting, since everyone deals with the situation where they want to forget a certain event. I found it shocking that young people have a better ability to selectively forget, since older people tend to generally forget more. I would assume that older people find it easier to forget certain events. However, I am confused as to how younger people can inhibit their memories. I feel like inhibiting episodic memories and inhibiting the word pathway in the Stroop task are completely different. I don’t understand the carryover between the ability to pay attention better to the ability to forget better.

    I also wonder if the task with forgetting one of the three characters can accurately depict forgetting an episodic memory ingrained in memory. For example, forgetting a prom fiasco may be a completely different process than forgetting the sentences about a specific fictional character. I feel like it is much harder to forget the real episodic memory, especially for younger people.

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