The Effects of Incentive on Memory Abilities

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Table of Contents

  • Memory as Described by Philosophers:
  • Experiments/Studies Involving the use of Memory:
  • Conclusion

Memory is the faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information (Oxford, 2018).Everyone uses memory every day in some way or another. A baby that learns to walk will remember how to walk forever. A squirrel that constantly sees humans will be less wary of them the more they see them. Memory is a great tool and without it, it would be quite impossible to be where we are now as a human race.

However, memory is not all benefits, there is many problems with memory. For instance, memory is subjective. Memory can be influenced by one’s personality and opinions. This is one reason evidence is usually required to make a strong case in court. Without memory, the passing down of information from generation to generation is not possible, the history of important events are lost, and the ability to progress is hindered, due to the inability to remember failures and successes.

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With memory now defined and explained, what ways can memory be modified or changed? A popular avenue of research is incentive. Incentive is anything that encourages or motivates one to do something (Oxford, 2018). A popular example of incentive is the use of treats to encourage a pet to do tricks. The treat being the incentive for the pet to commence the trick. The use of incentive has been used in many studies and is found in many instances of life. Incentives are not always positive. For example, if a person enters a shower with cold water running and they have an aversion to cold water, they will have a negative incentive to get out of the shower. Currently, incentive is a growing area for research, and further research could change the way people learn or remember.In this paper, the possible effects of incentive on the acquisition of memory is explored and analyzed upon and the following question is proposed:“To what extent can Incentive Benefit or Harm the Acquisition of Memory?” In this paper, the author will use terms such as incentive and memory based on previous definitions.The question that is proposed seeks to understand both sides of incentive on memory. Whether that side be beneficial or detrimental to the memory of people being affected by incentive. A few ways to answer this question is to analyze and examine theories surrounding both topics, or studies and experiments that can be relating to the topics. Only in these ways, a viable answer can be formed.In this paper, the author examines and analyzes studies and psychological theories that deal with the ideas of incentive and memory. The author also incorporates the ideas of philosophers to further build up a conclusion. To fully observe the possible extent incentive has on memory, studies have been divided into two groups: the side that talks about the nature of incentive, and the side that displays information about memory on the influence of incentive. Only after looking at both sides, an educated evaluation can be made where weaknesses and limitations of both studies and the ideals of philosophers can be discussed.

Memory as Described by Philosophers:

The theories and understandings of psychologists and philosophers on the idea of memory can help simplify how memory works and the way it is influenced. From the theories, a probable answer can be formed in cohesion with relevant studies.Theodor W. Adorno, a German philosopher (O’Connor, 2010), suggested an intriguing way of looking at memory. He suggested that memory is essentially knowledge that has a problem staying in the minds of everyone. He refers to this as the destruction of memory and how it can be easily accelerated or slowed by external factors such as incentive (O’Connor, 2010). In terms of the question, Adorno helps demonstrate the concept of memory as a fallible tool that indeed can be manipulated. This doesn’t however answer whether incentive increases or decreases the effect of incentive, but better connects the idea of memory.

Henri Bergson, a French philosopher (Pearson, 2010), approached memory in a highly innovative way. He was one of the first thinkers to show the importance of paying attention to different types of memory (which are episodic, semantic, procedural), and he sought to provide a sustained demonstration of why memory cannot be regarded as merely a diluted or lesser form of perception (Pearson, 2010). Henri Bergson’s approach to memory is a little different because he discovered the different types of memory and provided a reason memory and perception are two entirely different items. He found that memory is a conduit for all types of perception. A person can remember sounds, images, movements, etc. but without memory, perception would be severely hindered. Bergson, sets up the idea that appealing or unappealing objects that can be remembered, can possibly influence the retention of memory.

When Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist (Terdiman, 2010), set out to understand how memory worked in the psyche, he wasn’t thinking about whether his ideas harmonized with the historical and cultural complex we know as ‘‘modernity.’’ Modernity being the state of thinking alike with people in the same era. Freud wrote ‘‘I am not in general inclined to forget things,’’ in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. However, Freud’s memory was subject to the same failures and mix-ups that everyone experiences. For example, the phenomenon he termed ‘‘cryptomnesia’’—what we might translate as ‘‘forgetting with advantage.’’ Freud recounted his own times of this error. For example, he described how he had been brought by his friend, Fliess, to realize that he had completely forgot the memory that Fliess had introduced him to the theory of ‘‘original bisexuality,’’ a theory that he then later played back to Fliess as if Freud had devised it himself. For most of us, lapses such as these function only as annoyances or embarrassments. But Freud hypothesized that they could be made intelligible (Terdiman, 2010). When Freud talks about cryptomnesia, incentive could be used to influence that state of thinking. For example, if a person was told of an excellent idea, he or she might unconsciously want to remember that idea as their own. This can put incentive at the center of increasing the retention of memory.

In the words of an American author, David Shields, “Memory: the past rewritten in the direction of feeling. Human memory, driven by emotional self-interest, goes to extraordinary lengths to provide evidence to back up whatever understanding of the world we have our hearts set on however removed that may be from reality” (Shields, 2009). David Shields provides an excellent understanding of memory by including the emotional connection between the creation of memory and the recollection of past events. He describes the sheer amazement of how memory can create who we are as individuals. Shields adds to the inconsistency of memory by adding the emotion factor. Emotions can change how people remember events, for example having a great time at a party, can possibly influence the memory of the party to be greater than it really was.

In a book titled “Memory”, the three steps of acquiring memory is given. First, it must receive incoming information, a process termed ‘‘encoding.’’ Secondly, it must retain the information over time in a process termed ‘‘storage.’’ Finally, it must be able to access the information at some future time, a process termed ‘‘retrieval.” (Sutton, Harris, and Barnier 2010). The way memory is processed can influence the way incentive influences the retrieval of memory. In correspondence with the perspective David Shields, the emotion felt towards a certain memory could affect the processing of memories in a way where the memory would be easily remembered.

To understand memory fully and how it can be affected by incentive, current understandings and theories must be known. The volatile yet useful concept of memory strains to be one of the most used to combat the constant struggles of life. Research into incentive can potentially boost the effects of memory and possibly change how people look at memory.

Experiments/Studies Involving the use of Memory:

The studies that psychologists In a study conducted by Steffen A. Herff, Roger T. Dean, and Kirk N. Olsen. Participants were given rhythms to listen to and after listening to them they were asked whether they have heard that rhythm before based on a 100-point familiarity scale. After the participants answered, they were given another melody. In each experiment group, melodies were played twice in each and the participants answers were recorded. Incentive can influence this experiment on the memory of melodies because if a melody is subjectively nice to the subject, it might be an incentive to remember the melody. The results of the study showed that subjects that responded to melodies that were familiar to them usually responded to melodies that were happy and upbeat. This could be an indication that the incentive of happy and upbeat music improves the memory of the participants. However, a limitation such as the happy melodies just making the subject feel like the subjects have heard it before can make memory not involved in the experiment at all.

Another study went to investigate the use of incentive in helping students compete better in academic performances. There was a control group and experimental groups adding up to a total 109 juniors and seniors in college. The result of the study demonstrated a strong increase in achievement scores for those in the incentive learning group than the ones in the learning strategy and control group. The use of incentivized learning showed a definite increase in student’s ability to score higher. However, just because students scored higher does not necessarily mean that memory is affected in a way that improves it. How to Improve Memory?


Although it is uncertain whether incentive truly boosts or limits the ability to recall memory or expand memory, incentive does influence memory. In reference to David Shields, memory is based on emotion and can be interpreted in different ways. The use of incentive can bolster emotion to help facilitate the functions of memory.

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