Limitations of the multi-store model of memory (Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968)

Travis Dixon Cognitive Psychology 1 Comment

Here are some common critiques that you probably didn't think about.

Atkinson and Shiffrin’s MSM is over 50 years old yet it’s still in every introduction to Psychology textbook and still influences modern psychologists. But it’s not without its critics. This post will examine some of their critiques.

Because the MSM was so popular, it received a lot of criticism. But “…criticism could itself be viewed as a success, given the goal of science should be progress, and everyone should want to see old ideas be refined or replaced.” (Malmberg et al. 2019)

It’s difficult to find flaws with the MSM because if it had obvious flaws it wouldn’t have stood the test of time and still be mandatory material in most introduction to Psychology courses. Even experts struggle to find faults. Reviews of the MSM’s claims “…reveals them to be state-of-the-art today, uncovering, testing, and verifying fundamental processes of rehearsal, storage, and retrieval.” (Malmberg et al. 2019). That being said, we’ll review four common critiques of the MSM:

Atkinson and Shiffrin’s multi-store model of memory. (Wikicommons).

  1. Methodological limitations of the studies,
  2. Contradictory evidence,
  3. Oversimplification,
  4. Originality.

Read More:

Methodological Limitations

The easiest (but least effective) way of critiquing a theory is by looking for methodological flaws in the supporting evidence. Laboratory experiments on memory like Peterson and Peterson’s and Glanzer and Cunitz’s use abstract, meaningless information to test subjects’ memory (e.g. trigrams or random word lists.) A&S themselves call these tasks “often meaningless.” It’s done to avoid prior knowledge affecting recall – how can you test someone’s ability to create new memories if the information you’re asking them to remember is already in their long-term memory? Thus, the information participants are asked to remember has to be meaningless in order to accurately test short-term memory.

But this raises the question of generalizability. To what extent can we use these findings to explain memory as it happens in real life? We don’t spend hours remembering meaningless information that has no personal relevance (although in exam season you might argue otherwise!) So can we really use findings from studies about trigrams to explain memory in other contexts? For instance, do you always have to rehearse information for it to be stored in your long-term memory?

A strong evaluation of generalizability would include real-life examples of memory of meaningful information that doesn’t need heaps of rehearsal.

Contradictory Evidence

Levels of Processing

Among numerous other critiques in their 1972 paper, Craik and Lockhart challenged the idea that rehearsal is the primary factor that influences the transfer of memory from the STS to the LTS. With their levels of processing model and supporting studies they showed that the depth with which information is processed can affect memory. They suggested three types of processing:

  1. Structural (based on physical shape; most shallow type of processing)
  2. Phonological (based on sound)
  3. Semantic (based on meaning; the deepest type of processing).

Information that is processed more deeply (e.g. semantically) will be remembered better than information that is processed superficially.

The results of their studies showed that how we process information in our STS affects the transfer to the LTS. This highlights one of the limitations of the MSM – it’s focus on maintenance rehearsal (saying things over and over) over other types of rehearsal and different ways of encoding information.

You can download and read Craik and Lockhart’s original 1972 paper to find many more of their critiques of the multi-store model of memory.

The Primacy and Recency Effects

These have been used as evidence to support the MSM (Read more). However, one study showed a recency effect in students’ recall of US presidents (Roediger & Crowder, 1976) and another found a recency effect for rugby players recalling teams they’d played that season (Baddeley and Hitch, 1977). Why would a recency effect occur for information that was already in long-term memory? This information would have already been transferred to the long-term store, so theoretically a recency effect should not occur because the subject is not drawing this information from their short-term store. There must be another explanation, which challenges the idea that the recency effect supports the existence of a short-term store.

The peculiar case of KF

You probably know about the famous case study of HM – a man who lost the ability to make new memories. HM’s study supports the claim that short-term and long-term memory are different stores because HM could hold information in his STS but he could not make new memories (i.e. he could not transfer the information from his STS to his LTS). If memory was one single store then if he lost long-term storage abilities he would lose short-term storage as well.

So while you might know about HM, you might not know about KF. Like HM, KF also suffered brain damage but his was the result of a motorcycle accident when he was 17 years old. After the accident, his short-term memory was reduced drastically. He could only hold about two units of information in his working memory at any time (most people can hold around four). Remember that according to the MSM, information flows from the STS to the LTS. Because KF has almost zero capacity in his STS he should have an impaired ability to make new long-term memories. But this is not the case. Studies on KF found that his long-term memory abilities were normal. It seems from the studies that the information was bypassing the STS and going straight to KF’s LTS. This challenges the MSM’s claim that information flows from the STS to the LTS.

Oversimplification

Another critique of the MSM is that it oversimplified memory processes. For instance, the original theory focused primarily on maintenance rehearsal as the main way that memories transfer from STS to LTS. Studies have shown that other types of rehearsal, such as elaborative rehearsal, are more effective. This raises another issue with the MSM – it treats all memories as the same. But does all information pass through the stores similarly? Does all information need the same amount of rehearsal to transfer?

Maintenance rehearsal is a type of rote rehearsal which involves just reciting items over and over, whereas elaborative rehearsal is when we rehearse information by making connections between the new information and what we already know.

These studies also focus on information processed verbally (i.e. listening to words and letters). Some studies focus on visual information as well, but what about other sensory information? Does the process of memory formation happen the same with tastes and smells? How could this be tested? Do we need to “rehearse” this information? A&S admit in their original paper that the studies focus primarily on AVL information (auditory-verbal-linguistic). Perhaps then the model might not apply to all types of sensory information.

Originality

Could we critique the theory based on its originality? It’s a stretch, but it’s not as if the distinction between short-term and long-term memories was a unique idea. William James, known as the father of American psychology, proposed this distinction as early as 1890. Also, they were not even the first to present these ideas. Murdoch (1967) 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).” That being said, even his modal model drew on ideas from Atikinson and Shiffrin’s 1965 paper. So really it’s not a critique of the model perhaps as much as a question regarding the singular praise A&S seem to have received for the ideas of a multi-store model of memory.

Atkinson and Shiffrin’s original 1968 paper they did not “present a finished theory” but they “set forth a general framework within which specific models can be formulated.” (p91)


As a teacher and writer I don’t like to “give the answers” when it comes to critical thinking. But with theories like the MSM it’s quite tricky. It’s an extremely valid theory with scores of supporting studies. This makes it almost impossible for a novice psychologists just starting out in the subject to independently come up with unique evaluations. In this post I’ve tried to give some guiding points but still leaving enough room for students to add their own critical thinking.

Comments 1

  1. Great post Travis. I agree with your final paragraph … it’s a big ask for high school age students to independently critique the work of professional and highly specialized academics who have dedicated their lives to a specific area of research! Especially when they often don’t even have access to the original publication.

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