If you think you don't have a good memory, you probably don't. It is not just a matter of self-awareness. Beliefs about memory ability can cause poor memory. If you believe you have such a weakness, you may not do what is necessary to improve your memory capability.

Our cultural perspective on mental deterioration in the elderly may actually be a cause of poor memory. Researchers have noticed that older people do NOT have poor memories if they live in cultures (such as China) where old age is venerated and there is no general bias about mental deterioration with age. Picking up on this theme, a Harvard University researcher studied 90 people, age 60 or older, and found he could change their memory task performance by manipulating their beliefs about their memory skills.

The manipulation involved creating a bias about memory ability. Subjects viewed a list of about 50 words that either represented senile behaviors ("absent-minded," "senile," etc.) or represented "wise" behaviors ("sees all sides of issues," "smart," etc.). The lists were presented on a computer screen, and the subjects were asked to notice whether a flash occurred above or below a bulls eye that they were to focus on. Subjects were to signal the location of the flash as soon as they could with a computer key press. The rate of stimulus presentation was slow enough to allow the subliminal messages to be encoded but fast enough to keep them from being registered consciously. This was a way for the experimenter to make the conditioning subliminal and implicit. Messages were presented in five sets, each containing 20 words. Before and after the intervention, subjects were given three different kinds of memory tests that are known to assess the kinds of memory decline that occur in old age.

Test results revealed a correspondence between memory performance and the conditioned bias. Compared with their pre-test memory scores, post-test scores increased in the group that was primed with words signifying wisdom and were lower in the group that was primed with words suggesting senility.

The implications for real-world memory performance seem clear. If we truly believe we can remember well, maybe we can! Believing can change our attitude and motivate us to do the things that will make it so.

Belief Changes Attitude, Attitude Changes Performance

Psychologist Martin Seligman wrote a magnificent book, "Learned Optimism," which points out that both optimism and pessimism are learned attitudes, explanatory styles people use to evaluate the causes of their successes and failures.

Seligman even has a test that measures one's explanatory style, on a scale ranging from an optimist style (with negative events being temporary, specific, and external) to the pessimist style (where they are regarded as permanent, pervasive, and personalized). Optimists learn from their weaknesses and failures because they believe they can be overcome, not pervasive but limited in scope. Optimists know they can fix what is wrong. Pessimists quit trying, because they have concluded that their shortcomings are permanent, pervasive, and characteristic of themselves. The effects of these contrasting styles clearly affect one's view of their ability to improve thinking and remembering. The good news is one can learn a more beneficial explanatory style, in effect changing one's attitude.

The point is this: if you are motivated to develop a better memory and believe you can, you are much more likely to do what it takes to have a better memory.

Copyright 2010 W. R. Klemm

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