Human memory resembles a video recorder about as much as a hot dog resembles a dancing elephant on roller skates.
Unlike a video recorder, our memories do not create a true image of the past as we move through the world around us. Instead, even when we remember an event vividly and strongly we can be completely mistaken about what actually happened. This explains why there are worryingly many instances in which mistaken eyewitness identifications have sent innocent people to jail for crimes they did not commit. In many cases those witnesses were highly confident of their identifications.
How can this happen?
One of the ways in which our memories can become inaccurate is if we are exposed to distorting information—even something as simple as a misleading question—after we witness an event. For example, merely asking witnesses to a robbery if they saw the blue truck outside the bank can firmly implant that memory in their heads—even if the blue truck was actually a red van.
This malleability of memory can have far-reaching consequences in everyday life.
One arena in which malleability may be of particular concern involves online blogs and newspapers. It is now customary for virtually all information on the web to be accompanied by comments from—often anonymous—readers. Every book on Amazon is potentially subject to “review” by anyone who feels inclined to do so, and news articles such as this one tend to evoke (sometimes heated) comments.
Do those comments have an effect?
Before I answer that question, consider the implications if such comments did affect our behavior or memories or attitudes: After all, we usually do not know who those commenters are. We have no idea who might be the person behind ‘tweetybird24’ who opines that our currency is a government hoax or ‘cashedupbogan’ who thinks that money is alright but the government should tax neither mining nor beer. For all we know, both could be your neighbor’s 12-year old who’s having a laugh. So surely we’d dismiss comments because they might have no credibility whatsoever?
In fact, people do not dismiss blog comments.
Comments can affect our attitudes. Comments can affect our opinions, feelings, and perhaps even our comprehension.
We are just beginning to understand the effects of online commentary, but here are a few examples that provide food for thought (or indeed concern):
Amazon reviews affect sales. Reviews by people whom you don’t know and who might be CIA spies or members of your grandmother’s knitting club determine your purchasing behavior. One-star (bad) reviews are particularly damaging, more so than five-star (stellar) reviews are beneficial (Chevalier & Mayzlin, 2006)
The tone of blog comments—that is whether they are civil or not—affects people’s attitudes towards something they don’t understand well. Recent work by Brossard, Scheufele, and colleagues (2013) has shown that when people read a neutral blog post about a mysterious issue such as nanotechnology, exposure to uncivil comments, such as name calling and other expressions of incivility, polarized reader’s views of the technology. That is, readers who initially favoured nanotechnology became more likely to downplay the risk whereas readers who initially opposed the technology became more likely to highlight those risks. What is remarkable here is that the post was the same in both conditions—but its content no longer mattered as much when people read the comments following the article.
Now what about our memories? Maybe comments can affect our impulse purchasing behavior or risk perception, but surely not our memories of the actual contents of an article?
The answer to that question is still awaiting peer review. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to write up those experiments yet. But maybe you can guess the outcome from what I said at the outset? (If you weren’t distracted by tweetybird24’s views of the economy.)
Chevalier, J. A. & Mayzlin, D. The Effect of Word of Mouth on Sales: Online Book Reviews Journal of Marketing Research, 2006, 43, 345-354.
Brossard, D. & Scheufele, D. A. Science, new media, and the public Science, 2013, 40, 40-41.