Context cues are aspects of the environment that facilitate accessing and retrieving information in memory. Social psychology research has demonstrated that recalling episodic or semantic information improves when there is a match between contextual cues at encoding and retrieval.
That is, if the contextual cues when learning something are the same as when trying to recall it, then memory of that material is much better.
This is also referred to as the encoding-specificity hypothesis.
This principle states that increased overlap between environmental conditions during encoding and retrieval can significantly aid in retrieval (Tulving & Thompson, 1973).
Contextual cues play a role in not just memory. They can be involved with behavioral patterns and mood disorders as well. For example, behavior therapists working with children with learning disabilities will sometimes use cues to help remind children to engage in constructive replacement behavior.
Editor’s Note: Contextual Cues in psychology differ from context clues in language learning
Types of Context Cues
There are several types of context cues.
- Environmental context cues: The environment consists of a large number of stimuli: visual, auditory, and olfactory. However, researchers typically operationalize “environmental cues” as being location specific, such as students taking exams in the same or different classrooms (e.g., Seddon, 2019). Although not specifically stated, the primary cues in these situations are visual. The size and shape of the room, the color of the walls, and arrangement of furniture all predominantly involve the visual sensory modality.
- State-dependent context cues: State-dependent memory (SDM) refers to enhanced memory that occurs when there is a match between the physical or emotional state at encoding and retrieval. Lang et al. (2001) manipulated fear or relaxation and found improved memory when research participants where in the same emotional state at encoding and retrieval. Similar results have been found with caffeine (Kelemen & Creeley, 2003), cigarette smoking (Peters & McGee, 1982), and aerobic exercise (Miles & Hardman, 1998).
- Olfactory specific cues: Olfactory cues refer to different aromas that are present during encoding and retrieval. Although in everyday affairs odors can seem to play a back-seat to visual and auditory stimuli, odors can also serve as powerful contextual cues (Hackländer & Bermeitinger, 2018). In fact, an abundance of research has shown that olfactory cues may be superior in activating episodic memories than other sensory modalities such as visual, auditory, or tactile (Herz, 1996, 1998; Herz & Cupchik, 1992; Herz & Schooler, 2002). There appears to be a neuro basis for this superiority. For instance, Herz et al. (2004) used fMRI and found convincing neurobiological evidence that odor-evoked memory is correlated with activation in the amygdala.
- Auditory cues: Sounds during encoding and retrieval can affect memory as well. Most studies examining this connection have involved the use of background music. Several studies have found that memory is improved when background music is the same at encoding and retrieval times (Isarida, Kubota, Nakajima, & Isarida, 2017; Mead & Ball, 2007). Moreover, studies by Echaide et al. (2019) suggest that background music and type of information studied may interact. Their study demonstrated that background music in non-musicians is processed in the right hemisphere of the cortex, which could then interfere with memory as a result of limited neuro-processing resources.
Origins of Context Cues
In a literature review of context-dependent memory research, Smith and Vela (2001) identified Carr (1925) as conducting one of the first studies. Carr manipulated environmental context cues and examined effects of maze-running performance in rats.
Research on humans proceeded a few decades later and demonstrated improved memory when the learning environment and testing environment were the same as opposed to different (e.g., Eckert, et al., 1984).
Tulving (1974) reported the results of several tightly-controlled studies demonstrating enhanced recall with the presence of retrieval cues.
However, numerous studies began to have difficulty demonstrating context-dependent effects on memory recall (Smith & Vale, 2001). For instance, Saufley et al. (1985) conducted a field study that examined test performance in actual classroom environments.
They found no statistically different comparisons in 21 tests that involved college students taking exams in either the same or different rooms from the lecture rooms.
The variation in results could be due to different studies using vastly different stimuli and methodologies (Smith & Vale, 2001).
Therefore, Smith and Vale (2001) conducted a meta-analysis on 75 studies between 1935-1997. Although the studies were quite varied in methodology, the meta-analysis did reveal some basis for the power of contextual cues.
The authors concluded that:
“Averaged across all studies, the meta-analysis indicates that manipulations of incidental environmental contexts have reliably affected memory” (p. 212).
Context Cues Examples
- Finding Lost Keys: If a person can’t find their keys in the morning, they will often retrace their steps from the day before. The idea is that going through the different rooms in the house will help trigger their memory of where they put their keys last.
- Second Language Recall: Even when a person lives in a foreign country and learns how to speak the language well, all can be easily forgotten after returning home for a few years. However, if they move back to that country, all of a sudden, they will remember how to speak that language again; almost as if they had never left. This is because the environment is serving as a contextual cue that helps activate all of that “lost” knowledge.
- In Development of Phobias: When encountering an environment that looks a lot like the place where a traumatic event occurred, it can sometimes trigger feelings of fear and anxiety. The more similar the two environments, the more likely and intense the fear response.
- In Substance Use: Therapists will often instruct their patients to avoid situations and stimuli associated with their previous substance use habit. Those stimuli serve as contextual cues that can trigger memories and behavioral patterns that need to be extinguished.
- Passing by the Bakery: There’s nothing quite like the aroma of fresh-baked goods. Passing by a bakery when loaves of bread are being taken out of the oven can trigger memories from long ago or just last week.
- Drinking Soda: A student has discovered a neat trick to help her do better on exams. First, she always drinks a soda while studying. Then, when it’s time for the test, she drinks another one either right before the exam or takes one in to class (if its allowed).
- Essential Oils: Putting a few drops of lavender in the essential oils diffuser while studying makes for a pleasant learning environment. Then, when it’s time for the exam, placing a few drops of lavender on one’s palms can help trigger better recall of studied material.
- Classroom Decorations: Whenever students enter their geography classroom, they are instantly bombarded with lots of wall maps and geography posters. Although they may not realize it, all of those visual cues help activate content in their memory network from previous classes.
- Company Retreats: A lot of large corporations will send their management teams on company retreats to the mountains. The hope is that getting out of the usual work environment and all its contextual cues can help the team think outside the box and foster new relationships.
- Playing Classical Music: One elementary school teacher likes to play classical music during math lessons. In addition to believing that it helps relax the students, she also plays the same music during exams because she believes it will improve their scores.
Applications in Treatment of Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders refer to a group of psychological disorders that are characterized by intense and uncontrollable feelings of fear and anxiety. Anxiety disorders include: generalized anxiety, specific phobias, social phobias, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Once an anxiety disorder has developed, context cues play a central role in its maintenance and treatment.
Environmental cues associated with the initial trauma-inducing event will activate those intense feelings.
The greater the cue similarity in the environment encountered today and those in the initial trauma-inducing event, the more likely and stronger the response.
Many therapists will treat anxiety disorders by trying to condition a new physiological response to those cues. This is called systematic desensitization.
The process begins by creating a fear ladder, or fear hierarchy, in which the client identifies different scenarios that activate their fear, and then arranges them in order from least to most anxiety-inducing.
The therapist then teaches the client how to condition a relaxed response to each of those scenarios, starting at the bottom of the hierarchy. The relaxation techniques may involve progressive relaxation (Bernstein et al., 2007), biofeedback (Tyson, 1996), or guided imagery (Nguyen & Brymer, 2018),
Once the contextual cues in a scenario at the bottom of the fear ladder no longer activate anxiety, the therapist will then introduce the next scenario in the ladder.
The goal of treatment is for the client to have a completely different response to the context cues present in each scenario, until they reach the top of their fear ladder. At that point, the client’s life should no longer be disrupted by the anxiety disorder.
Context cues are stimuli in the environment that can affect behavior and memory. Those stimuli can be visual, auditory, olfactory, or refer to the emotional or physiological state of the individual.
Research has demonstrated that if cues that are present when learning information are also present while trying to recall that information, memory will be improved.
Research also shows that olfactory cues may be more potent than cues in other sensory modalities when recalling episodic memories. This is most likely due to the role of the amygdala in emotions and the power of odor associations.
Understanding the role of context cues in memory has led to the development of treatments for PTSD and anxiety disorders such as phobias.
By conditioning a patient to have a relaxed response to the contextual cues associated with the initial traumatic event, a patient can eventually overcome their fear.
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