ACT* Theory

Explaining memory effects

History and Orientation

ACT* is a general theory of cognition developed by John Anderson that focuses on memory processes.

ACT* distinguishes among three types of memory structures: declarative, procedural and working memory. Declarative memory takes the form of a semantic net linking propositions, images, and sequences by associations. Procedural memory (also long-term) represents information in the form of productions; each production has a set of conditions and actions based in declarative memory. The nodes of long-term memory all have some degree of activation and working memory is that part of long-term memory that is most highly activated.

Core Assumptions and Statements

According to ACT*, all knowledge begins as declarative information; procedural knowledge is learned by making inferences from already existing factual knowledge. ACT* supports three fundamental types of learning: generalization, in which productions become broader in their range of application, discrimination, in which productions become narrow in their range of application, and strengthening, in which some productions are applied more often. New productions are formed by the conjunction or disjunction of existing productions.

Conceptual Model

Source: Anderson (1976).

Favorite Methods

Experimental research and Computational simulations.

Scope and Application

ACT* can explain a wide variety of memory effects as well as account for higher order skills such as geometry proofs, programming and language learning (see Anderson, 1983; 1990). ACT* has been the basis for intelligent tutors (Anderson, Boyle, Farrell & Reiser, 1987).


One of the strengths of ACT is that it includes both proposition and procedural representation of knowledge as well as accounting for the use of goals and plans. For example, here is a production rule that could be used to convert declarative sentences into a question:

IF the goal is to question whether the proposition (LVrelation LVagent LVobject) is true THEN set as subgoals

1. to plan the communication (LVrelation LVagent LVobject)

2. to move the first word in the description of LVrelation to the beginning of the sentence

3. to execute the plan

This production rule could be used to convert the sentence: "The lawyer is buying the car." into the question: "Is the lawyer buying the car?"


Key publications

Anderson, J. (1976). Language, Memory and Thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Anderson, J. (1983). The Architecture of Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Anderson, J. (1990). The Adaptive Character of Thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Anderson, J. (1993). Rules of the Mind. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anderson, J. & Bower, G. (1973). Human Associative Memory. Washington, DC: Winston.

Anderson, J., Boyle, C., Farrell, R. & Reiser, B. (1987). Cognitive principles in the design of computer tutors. In P. Morris (ed.), Modeling Cognition. NY: John Wiley.

Belavkin, R. V. (2003). Conflict Resolution by Random Estimated Costs. In D. Al-Dabass (Ed.), Proceedings of 17th European Simulation Multiconference (pp. 105--110). Nottingham, England. ISBN 3-936150-25-7

Lebiere, C. & Anderson, J. R. (1993). A Connectionist Implementation of the ACT-R Production System. In Proceedings of the Fifteenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, pp. 635-640.

Taatgen, N.A. (2003). Learning rules and productions. In: L. Nadel (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, vol. 2 (pp. 822-830). London: MacMillan.

Taatgen, N.A. (to appear). Production compilation: a versatile cognitive mechanism. AISB Quarterly.

Note: Many of Anderson’s articles are available from his CMU home page at

See also Interpersonal Communication and Relations