Is the affective context model of memory true?

by Viv Cole on December 16, 2019

I’ve enjoyed reading Nick Shackleton-Jones’s book “How people learn” and a subsequent talk by him. Although I like the direction that he’s trying to nudge corporate L&D in, I have a few reservations about the ‘science bit’.

Whilst I agree that mainstream psychology seems to have gone down a blind alley with experiments testing recall of random things, I doubt Nick’s claim that emotion is the only factor in town when it comes to memory.

Nick gives an example of trigrams (3 letter words), some of which are nonsense and some are real words. Recall of the real words is higher than the nonsense. I hypothesise that the difference in recall of the words is down to whether they are “meaningful” rather than have “emotional impact”. Whilst emotion is powerful for memory, there are other types of meaningful that make a difference eg linkages and connections, information being presented in a coherent way, mnemonics, the generation effect (eg DeWinstanley and Bjork

Let me illustrate with a couple of ways of presenting similar information (the aim is for people who are not that interested in football to remember who won the FA cup in 3 years). For the sake of balance I should point out that I’m a Liverpool fan in a happy state of bewilderment about how well it’s going.

Option A – the facts

Table of FA cup winners

Option B – the facts put into a meaningful context

Arsenal had a remarkable run in the FA cup in the late seventies. In 1979 they won the FA cup in a topsy-turvy game against Manchester United. Arsenal were comfortable at 2-0 until with 5 minutes to go Manchester United came back to 2-2 before Arsenal snatched a last-minute winner to win the final 3-2. The epic 1979 final is surrounded by two examples of Arsenal being beaten in the final by two less fancied sides. In 1978 Ipswich were the giant killers and 1980 it was West Ham’s turn. Arsenal lost both of these finals 1-0.

I think that for most people Option B would be more memorable. I’ve tried to write it in a way that adds in meaning but no emotion.

I’ll leave you with a Star Trek thought experiment: if the affective context model of memory was true would a Vulcan remember anything?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Damien Scully May 25, 2021 at 5:08 pm

Thanks for this, like you I find Nick’s thinking on this interesting but wonder if it can really be as universal as he claims.
I am not sure which argument it supports but I doubt I will recall who won the FA Cup 78,79 & 80. Despite living in North London at the time I was interested in football, whereas some of my peers who were emotionally invested might be able to recall this unprompted today!
In the spirit of Vulcan’s having problems of recall would Klingons remember too much?


Nick Shackleton-Jones September 11, 2021 at 8:08 pm

Meaning IS affective significance.


Viv Cole September 12, 2021 at 4:46 pm

A semantic difference of opinion…I believe this blogpost illustrates that affective significance and meaning are overlapping circles on a Venn diagram i.e. meaning can exist outside of affective significance. However, in practical terms, L&D should be operating in the affective significance circle.


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