Four things you didn’t know about the multi-store model of memory

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology

Want to impress your examiner? Throw some of these fun facts in your next MSM essay.

It’s in all the textbooks and every introduction to psychology course, but here are some things you didn’t know about Atkinson and Shiffrin’s multi-store model of memory. 

#1. There’s a store within the store

The short-term store is where we temporarily hold information in our working memory. If it’s rehearsed enough it will transfer to the long-term store. But did you know about the rehearsal buffer? According to A&S, the rehearsal buffer is a store within the short-term store where information is placed if it needs to be rehearsed. Not all information is placed in the rehearsal buffer and it only holds a few items of information.

From the original chapter (Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968)

Information that is forgotten might have been bumped out of the rehearsal buffer before it was rehearsed for long enough to create a strong memory trace in the long-term store.

#2: They weren’t the first 

Atkinson and Shiffrin’s model is the one everything thinks of when we say the multi-store model, but did you know there are lots of multi-store models? In fact, A&S weren’t even the first. In 1967, one year prior to A&S, Murdoch presented his modal model which attempted “…to synthesize some recent theoretical conceptions; the components include sensory, short-term and long-term stores with three different forgetting mechanisms (decay, displacement and interference, respectively).” (Murdoch, 1967). But even his model drew on ideas from a paper from Atkinson and Shiffrin’s in 1965.

It helps to know the historical context from which psychological theories and models emerged. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that psychologists propose a theory from thin air and then test it using experiments. A&S’s MSM is a good example of how it’s often the studies that come first and the psychologists draw on these findings to create a unified theory.

A&S’s model was evolutionary, not revolutionary.

#3: There’s LOTS of contradictory evidence

The MSM was first outlined in a 110 page chapter “Human Memory: A Proposed System and its Control Processes.” Despite being one of the most cited articles  and having a massive influence in psychology, the theory is not without its critics.

Let’s just note three commonly cited sources of contradictory evidence (explained in more detail here):

  • Recency effects: while this effect supposedly happens due to new information remaining in the short-term store, the effect has also been observed on studies testing participants long-term memories. This suggests there must be an additional or superior explanation for why the recency effect occurs.
  •  The case of KF: this man lost most of his short-term memory capacity after a motorcycle accident. According to the MSM, this would also affect his LTS since information must flow from the STS to the LTS. On the contrary, KF’s ability to for long-term memories was just as good as anyone else’s.
  • Levels of Processing: Fergus Craik was the first to critique the MSM along with Robert Lockhart in 1972. Craik and Lockhart suggested that it’s not only rehearsal that transfers memory from STS to LTS, but the depth at which information is processed is important, too. Craik and Endel Tulving found support for their claims in their classic 1975 study.

#4: The Richards are still going!

Richard Shiffrin (b. 1942) is still teaching as a professor of cognitive science in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Richard Atkinson (b. 1929) is president emeritus of the University of California. Atkinson and his wife, Rita, donated $5.7 million for graduate fellowships at the University of California, San Diego, much of which will go to students studying science.

Shiffrin was just 26 and Atkinson 39 when their revolutionary evolutionary model was proposed. I guess it’s time for me to stop blogging and start coming up with some new theories!

Do you have another “fun fact” about the MSM? Leave a comment.