Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve illustrates the decline of memory retention over time. By understanding this curve, educators and learners can optimize learning strategies, enhance long-term memory, and efficiently allocate study time, ultimately improving knowledge retention and performance in various contexts.

Introduction to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, made pioneering contributions to the understanding of memory and learning. One of his most influential discoveries was the Forgetting Curve, which he meticulously documented through self-experimentation.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is a graphical representation of how information is lost over time when it is not actively reviewed or rehearsed. Ebbinghaus’ groundbreaking research demonstrated that the rate of forgetting is not linear but follows a steep, exponential decline. In other words, most of the forgetting happens rapidly in the initial stages, and the rate of forgetting gradually levels off over time.

The Principles of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

The key principles that underlie the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve are as follows:

  1. Rapid Forgetting: Ebbinghaus found that the most significant loss of information occurs shortly after learning. In the initial hours and days following the acquisition of new knowledge, memory decay is substantial.
  2. Exponential Decay: The rate at which information is forgotten follows an exponential decay pattern. This means that the forgetting curve is steeper initially and then gradually levels off. In practical terms, this suggests that if you do not revisit or review material, you will forget a large portion of it quickly, but the rate of forgetting will slow down over time.
  3. Retention Intervals: Ebbinghaus conducted experiments involving various retention intervals, ranging from minutes to months. His findings indicated that the longer the retention interval, the more information is forgotten. However, the steepest drop in memory occurs shortly after learning.
  4. Individual Differences: While Ebbinghaus’ research laid the foundation for understanding memory decay, he acknowledged that individuals may have different forgetting curves based on factors such as the nature of the material, its meaningfulness, and an individual’s prior knowledge and cognitive abilities.

Factors Influencing the Forgetting Curve

Several factors can influence the shape and trajectory of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve:

  1. Material Complexity: Complex or abstract information tends to be forgotten more rapidly than simple, concrete information. This is because complex material may be more difficult to encode and retain.
  2. Spaced Repetition: The Forgetting Curve can be mitigated through a learning technique known as spaced repetition. This method involves reviewing material at increasing intervals over time, which helps reinforce memory retention.
  3. Interference: The interference theory suggests that new learning can interfere with the retention of previously learned information. When information is similar or overlaps, it can lead to more rapid forgetting.
  4. Emotional Significance: Information that carries emotional significance or personal relevance may have a different forgetting curve. Emotionally charged events or knowledge may be remembered more vividly and for longer periods.
  5. Cognitive Effort: The act of actively engaging with and rehearsing information can slow down the rate of forgetting. When individuals make an effort to retrieve and review material, it can enhance memory retention.

Practical Applications

Understanding the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve has practical implications in various domains, including education, training, and everyday life:

  1. Education: Teachers and educators can use the insights from the Forgetting Curve to design effective learning experiences. This includes incorporating spaced repetition, active recall, and regular review into instructional strategies to enhance knowledge retention.
  2. Training Programs: Organizations that provide training to employees can benefit from applying the principles of the Forgetting Curve. By structuring training programs to include periodic reviews and assessments, they can improve the long-term retention of critical information and skills.
  3. Self-Directed Learning: Individuals can apply the Forgetting Curve principles to their own learning endeavors. When self-studying or preparing for exams, incorporating regular review sessions can significantly improve memory retention.
  4. Memory Enhancement: Memory techniques such as mnemonic devices, visualization, and association can be used to counteract the effects of the Forgetting Curve. These techniques help encode information in a more memorable and retrievable way.
  5. Curriculum Design: Educational institutions and curriculum developers can use knowledge of the Forgetting Curve to design curricula that emphasize reinforcement and retrieval practice, ensuring that students retain and apply what they have learned.

Strategies to Mitigate the Forgetting Curve

To mitigate the effects of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, individuals and educators can employ several effective strategies:

  1. Spaced Repetition: Implementing spaced repetition techniques, where material is reviewed at increasing intervals, is one of the most potent ways to counteract the Forgetting Curve. Spaced repetition apps and software are available to assist with this approach.
  2. Active Recall: Engaging in active recall exercises, where you try to retrieve information from memory rather than passively reviewing it, enhances memory retention. Flashcards and self-quizzing are examples of active recall techniques.
  3. Interleaved Practice: Rather than focusing on a single topic exclusively, interleaved practice involves mixing and alternating different subjects or skills during study or practice sessions. This technique can improve long-term retention and transfer of knowledge.
  4. Visualization: Creating mental images or visual associations with the material can make it more memorable and resistant to forgetting.
  5. Teaching Others: Teaching what you have learned to someone else reinforces your own understanding and memory of the material.
  6. Regular Review: Scheduling regular review sessions, particularly during the initial stages after learning new material, can help solidify memory traces and slow down the rate of forgetting.


The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve remains a foundational concept in the fields of memory and learning, shedding light on how we retain and lose information over time. While memory decay is a natural process, understanding the principles of the Forgetting Curve empowers individuals, educators, and organizations to employ effective strategies to enhance memory retention. By embracing techniques such as spaced repetition, active recall, and regular review, we can navigate the challenges posed by the Forgetting Curve and maximize our capacity for long-term learning and knowledge retention.

Examples of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve:

  • Language Learning:
    • Language learners can use the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve to optimize their study schedules. By strategically reviewing vocabulary and grammar at intervals aligned with the curve’s predictions, learners can enhance their long-term retention of language skills. This approach is commonly used in language learning apps and platforms that employ spaced repetition techniques.
  • Employee Training:
    • Organizations that provide employee training can benefit from incorporating the insights of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. When designing training programs, they can schedule periodic reviews and assessments to reinforce key knowledge and skills. This approach helps employees retain information more effectively and apply it to their roles, ultimately improving job performance.
  • Exam Preparation:
    • Students preparing for exams can use the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve to create study schedules that maximize knowledge retention. Instead of cramming all at once, they can plan regular review sessions over a longer period. This spaced repetition approach ensures that the material remains fresh in their memory and increases their chances of performing well on the exam.
  • Medical Education:
    • Medical students and professionals can apply the principles of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve to medical education. Since medical knowledge is crucial and needs to be retained over the long term, using spaced repetition techniques in medical training programs can help ensure that practitioners remember critical information, leading to better patient care.
  • Historical Dates and Events:
    • Students studying history can utilize the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve to improve their retention of historical dates and events. By reviewing and testing their knowledge at spaced intervals, they can reinforce their understanding of key historical milestones and figures, making history lessons more engaging and memorable.
  • Scientific Concepts:
    • Scientists and researchers can apply the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve to their work. When presenting scientific findings at conferences or in publications, they can use strategies like repetition, visual aids, and clear explanations to help their audience retain complex scientific concepts.
  • Computer Programming:
    • Individuals learning computer programming languages can leverage the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve to master coding skills. Regularly revisiting and practicing coding concepts and algorithms can reinforce learning and enhance programming proficiency over time.

Key Highlights of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve:

  • Memory Decay: The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve illustrates the natural tendency of memories to decay over time when they are not actively reinforced. This decay is most rapid shortly after learning.
  • Retention Intervals: The curve shows that the timing of reviews and repetitions is crucial for combating forgetting. Spaced repetition, where information is revisited at increasing intervals, can significantly improve long-term retention.
  • Relearning Effect: Relearning information after it has been forgotten can be more efficient than initial learning. This is known as the “spacing effect” and is a key principle in optimizing memory retention.
  • Optimized Learning: Understanding the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve allows learners to adopt effective study strategies that align with memory retention patterns. By following the curve’s predictions, learners can make the most of their study time and improve their knowledge retention.
  • Resource Constraints: While the curve provides valuable insights, implementing spaced repetition techniques in education and training may require additional resources and planning. However, the long-term benefits in terms of improved retention often outweigh the initial investments.
  • Contextual Learning: It’s important to note that some types of knowledge require deeper understanding and contextual learning beyond rote memorization. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is most applicable to factual information, vocabulary, and concepts that benefit from regular reinforcement.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Lindy Effect

The Lindy Effect is a theory about the ageing of non-perishable things, like technology or ideas. Popularized by author Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the Lindy Effect states that non-perishable things like technology age – linearly – in reverse. Therefore, the older an idea or a technology, the same will be its life expectancy.


Antifragility was first coined as a term by author, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragility is a characteristic of systems that thrive as a result of stressors, volatility, and randomness. Therefore, Antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Where a fragile thing breaks up to volatility; a robust thing resists volatility. An antifragile thing gets stronger from volatility (provided the level of stressors and randomness doesn’t pass a certain threshold).

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law is named after British monetary policy theorist and economist Charles Goodhart. Speaking at a conference in Sydney in 1975, Goodhart said that “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This observation was made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and it become a guiding principle for the semiconductor industry and has had far-reaching implications for technology as a whole.

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation as a term was first described by Clayton M. Christensen, an American academic and business consultant whom The Economist called “the most influential management thinker of his time.” Disruptive innovation describes the process by which a product or service takes hold at the bottom of a market and eventually displaces established competitors, products, firms, or alliances.

Value Migration

Value migration was first described by author Adrian Slywotzky in his 1996 book Value Migration – How to Think Several Moves Ahead of the Competition. Value migration is the transferal of value-creating forces from outdated business models to something better able to satisfy consumer demands.

Bye-Now Effect

The bye-now effect describes the tendency for consumers to think of the word “buy” when they read the word “bye”. In a study that tracked diners at a name-your-own-price restaurant, each diner was asked to read one of two phrases before ordering their meal. The first phrase, “so long”, resulted in diners paying an average of $32 per meal. But when diners recited the phrase “bye bye” before ordering, the average price per meal rose to $45.


Groupthink occurs when well-intentioned individuals make non-optimal or irrational decisions based on a belief that dissent is impossible or on a motivation to conform. Groupthink occurs when members of a group reach a consensus without critical reasoning or evaluation of the alternatives and their consequences.


A stereotype is a fixed and over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. These beliefs are based on the false assumption that certain characteristics are common to every individual residing in that group. Many stereotypes have a long and sometimes controversial history and are a direct consequence of various political, social, or economic events. Stereotyping is the process of making assumptions about a person or group of people based on various attributes, including gender, race, religion, or physical traits.

Murphy’s Law

Murphy’s Law states that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law was named after aerospace engineer Edward A. Murphy. During his time working at Edwards Air Force Base in 1949, Murphy cursed a technician who had improperly wired an electrical component and said, “If there is any way to do it wrong, he’ll find it.”

Law of Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences was first mentioned by British philosopher John Locke when writing to parliament about the unintended effects of interest rate rises. However, it was popularized in 1936 by American sociologist Robert K. Merton who looked at unexpected, unanticipated, and unintended consequences and their impact on society.

Fundamental Attribution Error

Fundamental attribution error is a bias people display when judging the behavior of others. The tendency is to over-emphasize personal characteristics and under-emphasize environmental and situational factors.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias describes a tendency to evaluate a decision based on its outcome and not on the process by which the decision was reached. In other words, the quality of a decision is only determined once the outcome is known. Outcome bias occurs when a decision is based on the outcome of previous events without regard for how those events developed.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias is the tendency for people to perceive past events as more predictable than they actually were. The result of a presidential election, for example, seems more obvious when the winner is announced. The same can also be said for the avid sports fan who predicted the correct outcome of a match regardless of whether their team won or lost. Hindsight bias, therefore, is the tendency for an individual to convince themselves that they accurately predicted an event before it happened.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon Effect.

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