Department or Program


Additional Department or Program (if any)


Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Margaret M. Keane


Memory performance is often better for events or items that are retrieved in a context similar to the context in which they were experienced. The presence or absence of such context effects can be explained by the outshining hypothesis (Smith & Vela, 2001), which states that, at retrieval, there are two types of cues that memory depends on, the context cue and the item cue. The stronger of these two cues suppresses, or “outshines” the weaker cue thus strengthening or eliminating context effects. Context effects are eliminated when memory performance is driven by the stronger item cue, which then ‘outshines’ the weaker context cue. In the present study, I examine the outshining hypothesis by manipulating the strengths of the context and item cues using concrete words (stronger item cue) and abstract words (weaker item cue) studied in two different kinds of context, videos (stronger context cue) and background color (weaker context cue). Contrary to the predictions of the outshining hypothesis, the context effect for abstract words was no greater than for concrete words. The study also failed to find greater context effects for video than background color context effects. These results can either provide evidence against the outshining hypothesis or raise questions about the relative strengths of the context and item cues used in the study.

Keywords: outshining, context-dependent memory, recall, context effect, word concreteness, retrieval cues