Sunday, September 14, 2014

Psychology Myths 2 of 5

Myth #2 Memory accurately records events we have experienced.

“I was with the guys for a second, and I think I went over to look at the toy store, the Kay-Bee toys … we got lost, and I was looking around and I thought, ‘Uh-oh. I’m in trouble now.’ … I thought I was never going to see my family again. I was really scared, you know. And then this old man … came up to me … he was kind of bald on top … he had a like a ring of gray hair … and he had glasses … and then crying, and Mom coming up and saying, ‘Where were you? Don’t you ever do that again!’” 

What is amazing about this story is not that the boy was lost, but rather that it never happened.  This beautifully illustrates that memory is not an accurate source of information. Memories sometimes are altered, false, and forgotten.

The story was the result of an experiment done by Elizabeth Loftus (1993; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994). She created a false memory on a boy named Chris. She did this by telling his older brother to present him with the false recollection along with three true memories. After the older brother had finished his part of the experiment, which was disguised as a simple game so Chris would not know he was part of an investigation, he told his brother to write down what he remembered about the events. At first, the details of the story were scarce, but after two weeks he wrote the story presented in the beginning of this post. Moreover, to make sure that Chris did not in fact experienced this event, the researcher asked his mother if the event was true and she confirmed that it was a false memory.


Even though, a lot of people believe in this myth, the majority does not. Research shows that at least 36% of people believe that we can preserve perfect memories of an experience (Alvarez & Brown, 2002). In addition, a survey that was taken by more than six hundred undergraduates showed that 27% were certain that memory functioned like a tape recorder (Lenz, Ek, & Mills, 2009). Nevertheless, it has already been proven that our memory does not accurately record events (Clifasefi, Garry, & Lofts, 2007).

What about flashbulb memories?

The University of Illinois at Chicago describes flashbulb memories as memories that are "distinctly vivid, precise, concrete, and long lasting." Even though they may seem very vivid and that there is no way that the person is distorting this memory, research shows that the events that create flashbulb memories are also altered. This is evident in the following example shown by Ulric Neisser and Nicole Harsch. The example comes from the statements made by a student at Emory Univerity in Atlanta and what he remembers about the failure of the space shuttle "Challenger" when it disintegrated one minute after lift-off.

After one day of the event the student said:

I was in my religion class and some people walked in and started talking about (it). I didn’t know any details except that it had exploded and the schoolteacher’s students had all been watching which I thought was so sad. Then after class, I went to my room and watched the TV program talking about it and I got all the details from that.

After  21 1/2 years later the student stated:

When I first heard about the explosion I was sitting in my freshman dorm room with my roommate and we were watching TV. It came on a news flash and we were both totally shocked. I was really upset and I went upstairs to talk to a friend of mine and then I called my parents.

This distortion also happened for many other events such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the attacks on U.S. soil in 9/11 and the death of Princess Diana (Krackow, Lynn, & Payne, 2005–2006; Neisser & Hyman, 1999).

How common is the  distortion of memories?

Neisser and Harsch discovered that 1/3 of reports made by students had also huge discrepancies over time. In an experiment made around O.J. Simpson, who had been charged with killing his wife and her friend,  Schmolck, Buffalo, and Squire found that there were differences in the memories reported by participants three days after the verdict compared to thirty-two months later. They found that 40% of the reports had distorted memories (Smolck, Buffalo, & Squire, 2000).

How can this be bad? 

Well, first of all, people are really confident of what they remember and they can accept these memories as truths. Thus, people may seem confident about their testimony in court when in reality they don't remember what happened (Memon & Thomson, 2007; Wells & Bradford, 1998). In addition, there is no correlation between the confidence of a testimony and the accuracy of it (Kassin, Ellsworth, & Smith, 1989). What makes it worse is that juries typically place a great importance on the confidence level of eyewitnesses (Smith, Lindsay, Pryke, & Dysart, 2001; Wells & Bradford, 1998).

Can we change that?

Feel free to leave a comment, questions, concerns, or suggestions.