Study claims brain games don't make you smarter

April, 2010

The recent report splashed all over the press that supposedly found playing online brain games makes you no smarter than surfing the Internet demonstrated no more than we already know: that transfer beyond the specific tasks you practise is very rare, and that well-educated people who are not deprived of mental stimulation and have no health or disability problems are not the people likely to be helped by such games.

A six-week study got a lot of press last month. The study involved some 11,000 viewers of the BBC's science show "Bang Goes the Theory", and supposedly showed that playing online brain games makes you no smarter than surfing the Internet to answer general knowledge questions. In fact, the main problem was the media coverage. The researchers acknowledged that previous research has found some types of individuals benefit from such games (older adults, preschool children, and I would add, children with some learning disabilities such as ADHD), and that video gamers show improved skills in some areas. What they found was that, across this general, mostly well-educated group, the amount of training on these tasks didn't improve performance beyond those specific tasks. This is neither a surprise, nor news. I'll talk more about this in the newsletter coming out early next month.



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Does collaboration disrupt retrieval strategies?

Journal Article: 

Basden, B.H., Basden, D.R., Bryner, S. & Thomas, R.L. III (1997). A comparison of group and individual remembering: Does collaboration disrupt retrieval strategies? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 1176-1189.

  • "Brainstorming" actually produces fewer ideas than would be produced by the same individuals working individually.
  • This is probably because hearing other people's ideas disrupts your own retrieval strategy.
  • This is less likely to occur in a structured situation, where turns are taken.

Despite the popularity of brainstorming as a strategy for producing ideas and new perspectives, it appears that participation in a group actually reduces the number of ideas produced (compared to the number of ideas that would be produced if the participants thought independently)1.

Three possible explanations have been investigated:

  • evaluation apprehension (being worried how other people will evaluate your ideas)
  • social loafing (a self-explanatory and rather cute description)
  • production blocking (the group interaction interferes with your ability to express your ideas, e.g., through interruptions)

It was concluded that this last explanation (production blocking) was the most plausible reason for the reduction in idea production. It was suggested that a person's retrieval strategy is disrupted by hearing another person's ideas.

In the present study, four experiments studied recall of lists of categorized words. Such recall clearly depends on organized retrieval, and all experiments showed that such recall is ordinarily disrupted in collaborative groups. A turn-taking procedure was used within the groups, rather than the free-for-all procedure used in a similar study.

Basden et al suggest that when you're asked to think of ideas, you formulate a particular retrieval strategy. However, as soon as someone else makes a suggestion, there is a tendency to abandon your own retrieval strategy in favor of one more consistent with the other person's. In a group this is particularly difficult since everyone's strategy is likely to be different.

It is worth noting that various variables affect the effectiveness of group remembering, depending on whether the group is structured as a free-for-all, or the group members take turns in speaking. If turns are taken, waiting time is an important variable. In a free-for-all, the specificity of the suggestions may be important, this being affected by how well the group members know each other. Another study that used a free-for-all procedure found that recall was better if the collaborating pair were friends2. They argued that a friend is more likely to provide retrieval cues that are specific to the target information. However, if turns are being taken, such social factors may be less important.


1. Diehl, M. & Stroebe, W. 1987. Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: Toward solution of a riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 487-509.

Diehl, M. & Stroebe, W. 1991. Productivity loss in idea-generating groups: Tracking down the blocking effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 392-403.

2. Andersson, J. & Rönnberg, J. 1996. Collaboration and memory: Effects of dyadic retrieval on different memory tasks. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 10, 171-181.

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Effect of keywords on long-term retention

Journal Article: 

Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. (1995). Effect of keywords on long-term retention: help or hindrance? Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 468-475.

Effective use of the keyword strategy requires repeated reviews of the material

Distinctiveness is not as good a cue as more meaningful information

To be effective, imagery-based mnemonics need to use relational images that bring together the to-be-remembered information and all the necessary cues

A number of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of the keyword mnemonic for short-term recall, for example:

  • McDaniel et al (1987) compared the keyword mnemonic with a strategy whereby new vocabulary were studied in a meaningful context. They found immediate recall was significantly better using the keyword strategy, but after a week, recall was comparable using either strategy.
  • Wang et al (1992) compared the keyword strategy with rote rehearsal for learning foreign vocabulary. They found immediate recall was higher using the keyword strategy, but much worse after one week. But note that recall of the keywords themselves was very good - the problem came with recalling the word the keyword was supposed to remind you of.

In the present study, as with the McDaniel study, the keyword mnemonic was compared with the semantic-context strategy, and obscure English words were used. As usual, immediate recall was better for the keyword method, but after two days, recall using the keyword strategy was significantly worse (although, as before, the keyword itself was recalled very well). The same pattern of results was found using foreign vocabulary.

In the next experiment, subjects were given the opportunity to review, either three times or five times. Compared to a control condition (no review), review improved both immediate recall and recall after two days, with the number of reviews making a significant difference (for both strategies). The important finding however, was that the more rapid forgetting of the keyword mnemonic was considerably reduced with repeated reviews (bringing it to the level of recall seen using the semantic-context strategy after five reviews).

The authors' conclusions are interesting. They point out that distinctiveness cues are apparently less durable (less well-remembered over time) than cues that are relational and semantic, and that these results are thus consistent with the view that imagery-based mnemonics produce distinctiveness cues. That is, such strategies make the to-be-remembered items more vivid and concrete.

They suggest that with only a little practice, only the distinctive keyword images are formed. Extended practice is needed to generate images that effectively integrate relational qualities.

Images are only valuable to the extent that they connect otherwise unrelated information (see The myth of imagery).


  • McDaniel, M.A., Pressley, M. & Dunay, P.K. 1987. Long-term retention of vocabulary after keyword and context learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 87-89.
  • Wang, A.Y., Thomas, M.H. & Ouellette, J.A. 1992. Keyword mnemonic and retention of second-language vocabulary words. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84, 520-528.


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Collective and individual processes in remembering

Journal Article: 

Weldon, M.S. & Bellinger, K.D. (1997). Collective and individual processes in remembering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 1160-1175.

  • "Brainstorming" actually produces fewer ideas than would be produced by the same individuals working individually
  • Groups working together to remember something recall more poorly than the same individuals would working on their own
  • The inhibitory effect of working in a group is worse when the information being recalled is more complex

When a group of people work together to remember an event, the group do appear to recall more than an individual working alone, but do they recall more than the sum of the memories each individual recalls?

Studies have found that "brainstorming" groups actually produce fewer ideas than groups that are groups in name only1. And in many tasks, from rope-pulling to vigilance tasks, it has been found that people contribute less when they are part of a group than when they are working alone2.

In this study, two experiments compared the memory performance of nominal and collaborative groups of three, using

  • random lists of pictures and words;
  • a story (The "War of Ghosts", a supposed folk-tale, long used in psychology labs to demonstrate the errors in people's memories)

It was found that the nominal groups (where individual results were pooled) remembered the best. Collaboration appears to inhibit recall. Such collaborative inhibition was greater with the story than with the list.


1. Bouchard, T. J. Jr. & Hare, M. 1970. Size, performance, and potential in brainstorming groups. Journal of Applied Psychology, 54, 51-55.

Diehl, M. & Stroebe, W. 1987. Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: Toward solution of a riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 487-509.
Dunnette, M. D., Campbell, J. & Jaastad, K. 1963. The effects of group participation on brainstorming effectiveness for two industrial samples. Journal of Applied Psychology, 47, 30-37.

2. Karau, S.J. & Williams, K.D. 1993. Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 681-706.

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Can simple instructions to use spaced practice improve ability to remember a fact?

Journal Article: 

Landauer, T.K. & Ross, B.H. (1977). Can simple instructions to use spaced practice improve ability to remember a fact? An experimental test using telephone numbers. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 10, 215-218.

Reviewing information at spaced intervals is a more effective means of learning than a single "binge" session.

People tend to over-estimate the effectiveness of a single heavy session.

Instructions to space practice are a simple way for a teacher to improve learning.

Such simple instructions are not necessarily followed.

It has long been known that spacing practice (reviewing learning or practicing a skill at spaced intervals) is far more effective than massed practice (in one heavy session). It is also well-known that people commonly over-estimate the value of massed practice, and tend not to give due recognition to the value of spacing practice, despite the fact that most memory improvement and study programs advise it.

Many learning strategies require extensive training. The advantage of spaced practice is that it does not. Experience with it may also result in better self-appraisal about how well information has been learned.

In this study, a class of 708 students were given instruction sheets on which was written a 7-digit number purporting to be a phone number. The students were instructed to memorize the number and told their recall would be tested later in the term. Half the class were told to memorize the number however they usually would. The other half were told to post the number where they would see it, and look at it once or twice a day for a week. They were told this would be an effective way of learning the number.

A significantly greater number of students from the spaced-practice group remembered the number correctly two weeks later (72.7% compared to 61% of the control group). According to the questions they answered, some 11.6% of the spaced-practice group in fact did all their studying in a single session, and only 46.4% studied the number on 3 or more days. Some 18% of the control group also studied the number on 3 or more days. In other words, being in the spaced-practice group doesn't necessarily mean spaced practice was used, nor does being a member of the control group mean that spaced-practice wasn't used.

Clearly, simple instructions to use spaced practice improve memory, but equally clearly, many people are not necessarily going to follow those instructions, for whatever reason.

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