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Believing What We Remember

Many of our beliefs are tied to our memories, but memories are fallible.

WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock
Source: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

The following is an edited excerpt from my new book, Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling.

Whatever you believe about the world and about yourself at this moment — without consulting books or the internet — comes from your memory. In a real sense, even your belief about who you are — your self-identity — is based on who you remember yourself to be. It is your memory that provides you with a sense of continuity in your life.

Until not so many years ago, experimental psychologists viewed memory simply as a very sophisticated recording process, and any errors were treated as defects in the process. A mountain of research now clearly contradicts that view. We now know that errors of memory are commonplace, not rare, and that, rather than being caused by defects, they reflect the fundamental character of the memory process. Memory is not some sort of cerebral video recorder that captures events around us as we experience them. As solid and reliable as most of our personal memories seem to be, memories are not direct and faithful records of our past. And sometimes, we can have “memories” of events that never occurred at all. To the extent that our memories are fallible, many of our beliefs are likewise vulnerable to error.

There are a number of influences that can distort or corrupt our memories and the beliefs associated with them:

1. Retroactive Falsification

When an event is recalled a number of times in succession, the details tend to become more consistent with one’s belief about the event. For example, suppose you describe a recent experience with a rude waiter. You recall that your partner had complained about the soup not being hot enough, and that you sarcastically suggested to the waiter that the chef should learn how to cook. The waiter then snarkily advised you to dine somewhere else next time. As you relate this account, your listener responds by suggesting that your sarcasm may have provoked the rude response, thereby challenging the “rude waiter” theme of your story. Now, the next time you tell the story, you may unwittingly or perhaps even deliberately reduce the likelihood of such a challenge by leaving out the bit about your sarcasm. Each new reconstruction influences the following one, and over several retellings, you may actually forget all about your sarcasm. This is retroactive falsification, and it can occur completely without awareness. It serves to maintain your belief — in this case, that the waiter was spontaneously rude.

2. The Misinformation Effect

The misinformation effect occurs when misleading information acquired subsequent to an experience leads to alterations in memory and belief about the experience. In one study, participants were presented with a series of photographs portraying a thief stealing a woman’s wallet and putting it in his jacket pocket. Subsequently, the participants listened to a recording that described the series of photos, but the recording indicated that the thief had put the wallet into his pants pocket. A substantial proportion of the participants later recalled that the photographs had shown the thief putting the wallet into his pants pocket. The subsequent misinformation had become part of their memories and their beliefs about what had occurred.

3. Imagination Inflation.

Research has demonstrated that something imagined in the context of a particular memory is sometimes later “remembered” as having actually happened. As result of this imagination inflation, the “memory” may carry with it all the corresponding emotional and physical reactions that would occur were the memory accurate.

This poses a significant risk of memory contamination in settings in which authorities make suggestions, such as in therapy settings. When a therapist simply suggests to a client that an unfortunate event might have occurred in her childhood — as some careless therapists do — this can be enough for imagination inflation to occur, and for the imagined event to take on an air of reality. It is similarly a problem in the courtroom, where suggestions made by attorneys can sometimes result in distortions in a witness’s memory.

4. Source-monitoring Errors.

Distortions in memory can also come about because of source-monitoring errors in which information is recalled, but, with the passage of time, its dubious source has been forgotten. No longer being able to evaluate the information in terms of the reliability of the source, an individual may now believe information that earlier was not considered credible. (This is sometimes referred to as the sleeper effect.) For example, you mention to your friend that diet colas are bad for your teeth, and your friend challenges you about where you learned this. You remember having “heard it somewhere,” but have forgotten that it was your neighbor, Joe, who told it to you. In reality, you have no confidence in anything Joe tells you, and so had you remembered that the statement came from him, you would have discounted it completely.

5. Confidence.

When we are confident that a memory is accurate, we will be confident that the associated belief is correct. Similarly, we tend to trust other people’s memories when they are confident in them. This trust is misplaced, for researchers have repeatedly found that confidence in a memory is at best a poor predictor of its accuracy. Memories can be held with great confidence even when they are false.

Source: Pixabay

What all this tells us is that while we take for granted that our memories are more or less accurate records of our experiences, this is not always the case. We need to understand that there are times when our memories can be greatly at variance with what actually occurred, despite our confidence in their veracity. The problem is, of course, that erroneous memories often appear as vivid and realistic as those that are accurate. This should make us cautious about relying completely on our memories to justify our beliefs.