While the other theory says we confuse an item with other items that we have previously encountered (also known as temporal confusability). With the two theories, researchers sought to the main cause of forgetfulness over the short term.
During the research, the participants were presented with a "Ready" screen (on a computer) for either 1.5 seconds or 60 seconds.
They were presented with a string of three letters and were instructed to remember them for a later test.
But, before they were asked to recall the three letters, the volunteers were told to count backwards for various amounts of time (4, 8, 12 or 16 seconds).
They found that temporal confusability, and not decay, is important for forgetting over the short term.
The volunteers who had to count backwards for the longest amount of time were better able to recall the letters than volunteers who were asked to count backwards for a shorter time period.
The researchers suggests that if decay was the main cause of forgetfulness, the participants, who were asked to count backwards for a longer amount of time would have performed the worst during recall.
The authors conclude "it is possible to alleviate and even reverse the classic pattern of forgetting by making information distinct, so that it stands out relative to its background". These findings have very important implications not just for everyday memory use, but also for educational practices and for populations with memory problems, such as the elderly.
The results are reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.