Stuff to know about memory

October 5, 2010

Pretty much everyone has heard by now about false memory syndrome. Most have probably heard that memory is in other ways extremely unreliable. But i suspect many still regard their own memories as providing fairly accurate access to their own pasts.

Worth, then, pointing out some of the findings of the science of memory:-

1. An individual’s memory of a famous event will often differ dramatically at different times of recall. The famous study here is that of Neisser and Harsch who requested students write an account of the circumstances surrounding their hearing news of the Challenger shuttle disaster. Some participants in the study insisted emphatically on the accuracy of their later account, asserting they were certain after two and a half years that what they wrote 24 hours after the incident could not be correct! This brings us to the second finding.

2. Confidence in the accuracy of memories correlates weakly, if at all, with the actual accuracy of memories. Unwarranted confidence in the witness box has consigned many an innocent defendant to the lock-up.

3. Memory is reconstructive, not reproductive. Emotions, narrative plausibility, desires, prejudices and so on all impinge on the reconstruction of memory, often inaccurately called “recall”. Another way of saying this is that memory is schematic. Schema in this context are patterns of cognitive expectation dependent upon personal experience. A good example would be how stereotypes affect memories of witnessed behaviour. As Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio & Beyerstein put it, “We reconstruct the past to fit our schematic expectations.”

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