Monday, October 21, 2013

The Von Restorff Effect was named after Hedwig Von Restorff, a German psychiatrist and pediatrician.

In 1933, Von Restorff conducted an experiment involving isolated and distinctive items (Wallace). What she discovered was that the participants in the survey were able to remember these isolated and distinctive items better than other items they were viewing. Which is a reason why this effect is also called the Isolation Effect or Distinctive Principle.

The fundamental idea of the Von Restorff Effect involves the tendency when attempting to recall lists of words or other items, that have been learned, to have better recall for any item later that has a high degree of salience. Salience meaning most noticeable or important. The Von Restorff Effect allows these distinctive items to be more likely encoded into long-term memory as well.

In simpler terms, this means it is easier to remember items that stick out like a sore thumb. This is no earth shattering idea. If you are walking to class and see a bunch of normal dressed college students, more than likely none of them will stick out to you and be remembered. However if when walking to class you see a student dressed like a pirate, you will probably remember and share that experience with others. Further down the road you will also remember the time you saw a guy dressed like a pirate walking across campus opposed to a guy wearing a Michigan
Tech sweatshirt and jeans.

This example illustrates a basic experiment for the Von Restorff effect. If you looked away from the screen and were asked to recall the letters, the hypothesis would be the O would be the letter recalled easiest and most often.

A disadvantage of the Von Restorff Effect is that although the viewer remembers one item better than the rest, less of the scene is remembered overall. This is because the attention is brought to the item that stands out and this takes away from the rest of the scene (Wallace).

A real world application to this would be if you are going to go shopping and there is one item on the list that you always forget. For this example it will be milk. Before going to the store, highlight milk on your list. This way when you view your list at the store, the highlight word milk, will stand out and be remembered so there is a higher chance you won't forget it. But be warned that forgetting other items on the list have a higher chance of being forgotten.

Another example is marketing. The whole idea in marketing is to get your product to stand out from everyone else's. This is why it is important to do something to your product that makes it stand out from the others and have a distinct quality. Maybe the packaging is fluorescent orange. That could make it stand out and make people remember your product.

The CogLab for the Von Restorff Effect was a relatively simple experiment. It consisted of letters being rapidly flashed across the screen with each letter being shown for one second. One some of the trials, in the middle of it one of the letters would be red, instead of the usual black. At the end of approximately ten letters being shown, the participant is asked to recall the letters. The hypothesis of the experiment was that the red letter should be remembered more than the other letters. 

The journal article I found dealt with the way the Von Restorff Effect affects people in different age groups (Bireta). The first experiment was to see twelve words, then recall them after. One word was highlighted in red, while the control list had twelve items in black.

Experiment #1: cloud, phone, toy, water, pig, shoe, bed, foot, house, light, lamp, pen

In experiment 2, the lists consisted of categorized nouns, with one unrelated noun in the isolate lists.

Experiment #2: dog, cat, cow, horse, monkey, whale, doughnut, bird, snake, lizard, worm

 It found that when the color of the font, experiment #1, was changed, older people, mean age of 71, were able to remember this and experience the effect. While younger people, mean age of 19, were able to experience the effect with the first and second lists. The study claimed that these results were consistent with prior research in which adults demonstrate similar but smaller benefits for distinctive information compared to younger adults.

These results are believed to be a result of older people being unable to form connections between the words. For example, in the second experiment, they would be unable to realize that all the words are animals except for doughnut. Younger people on the other hand are able to make this connection and remember it.


Johansson, B. S. (1970). Attention and the von restorff effect. British Journal of Psychology, 61(2), 163-170

Bireta, T. J.Age-related differences in the von restorff isolation effect. (Order No. AAI3251586, Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, , 1327.

Wallace, W. P. (1965). Review of the historical, empirical, and theoretical status of the von restorff phenomen