How Sure are You of Your “Memories”? Suggestibility, Insertion, and Construction of Recall

Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth Loftus

Experimental psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus investigated memory and its quirks, such as mistaken eyewitness testimony and “repressed memory” of pedophilia in laboratory and naturalistic settings for nearly 40 years.

William Saletan

William Saletan

William Saletan of Slate replicated one of Loftus’s experiments in memory insertion by using digitally-altered photos by developing five images of events that did not actually occur:

  • Sen. Joe Lieberman voting to convict President Clinton at his impeachment trial
  • Vice President Cheney rebuking Sen. John Edwards in their debate for mentioning Cheney’s lesbian daughter
  • President Bush relaxing at his ranch with Roger Clemens during Hurricane Katrina
  • Hillary Clinton using Jeremiah Wright in a 2008 TV ad
  • President Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

These images were mixed with photos of actual events:

  • 2000 Presidential election recount in Florida
  • Colin Powell’s prewar assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction
  • 2005 congressional vote to intervene in the Terri Schiavo’s “right-to-die” case.

Each participant viewed three true incidents and one randomly selected fake incident, and was asked whether the subject remembered each one.
Next, each volunteer was informed that one of the incidents was false and was asked select the fake.

Slate’s results replicated the trend observed by Loftus:  Fewer than half of the volunteers correctly detected fake photos and many “misremembered” fake photos by giving detailed explanations of their recollections of events that did not actually occur and photos that did not exist before the experiment.

Frederic Bartlett

Frederic Bartlett

The findings validate psychologist Frederic Bartlett’s claim wrote almost a century ago at Cambridge University:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces.
It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience.

Rosalind Cartwright

Rosalind Cartwright

More recently, sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright summarized Bartlett’s point by concluding that “Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” and artist Austin Kleon translated these concepts into current vernacular:  “you are a mash-up of what you let into your life.”

Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon

Philippa Perry

Philippa Perry

British psychotherapist Philippa Perry points to the logical conclusion from these observations in advising, “Be careful which stories you expose yourself to. … The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are…

-*How do you monitor the accuracy of your memories?
-*How do you detect “memory mash-ups”?
-*How do you select the experiences from which you form memories?

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5 thoughts on “How Sure are You of Your “Memories”? Suggestibility, Insertion, and Construction of Recall

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