Retrieval Cues: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 What is Retrieval?
  • 2:20 Retrieval Failure
  • 3:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Retrieval cues are stimuli that help you retrieve a certain memory. Learn more about retrieval cues and retrieval failure from examples, and test your knowledge with a quiz.


Imagine that you are shopping at a grocery store when you run into a female acquaintance. She hugs you and proceeds to tell you all about her day and weekend. Although you realize that you know her, you cannot remember her name or where you know her from. Not wanting to seem rude, you let her continue with her conversation.

You look around, hoping for some clue as to her identity. You look into her cart and see a pack of juices. An image pops up in your head of your son drinking one of those juices at his last soccer practice. You suddenly remember that the person talking to you is named Rose and her son plays on the same soccer team as yours. In this example, the sight of the pack of juices served as a retrieval cue.

What Is Retrieval?

Recalling the memory of your son drinking juice is an example of retrieval. Before this point, the memory had been stored into long-term memory and you were not consciously aware of it. Retrieval is the process of accessing information stored in long-term memory. Through retrieval, we are taking our memories out of storage and becoming consciously aware of them.

So what then are retrieval cues? Retrieval cues are stimuli that assist in memory retrieval. In other words, retrieval cues help you access memories stored in long-term memory and bring them to your conscious awareness. The presence of retrieval cues can make recalling memories much easier.

Retrieval cues can be external, such as the smell of a lit candle that reminds you of your grandmother's cinnamon apple pie. Retrieval cues can also be internal, such as feelings of sadness that remind you of when you broke up with your significant other.

Experimental psychologist Endel Tulving proposed that it is easier to retrieve memories if the cues that were present when the memory was initially encoded, or converted into a construct that can be stored in long-term memory, were also present as the memory is being retrieved from long-term memory. For example, if you and your spouse had your first dance to a song called 'Take My Breath Away,' you are more likely to recall the details of your first dance when you hear that same song. In this case, the song 'Take My Breath Away' serves as a retrieval cue. The song was also present both during the retrieval of the memory and when the memory was initially encoded.

Retrieval Failure

Because retrieval cues are important to some memories, it is possible for you to fail to recall memories due to a lack of retrieval cues. Without those retrieval cues, you may not be able to recall the memory at all.

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