Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Remembering Our Selves

Inaccuracies and accuracies in memory

We know that our memories can be inaccurate – we forget, we distort, we omit and add, we blend. We also know that some personal memories are vivid and very accurate over long periods of time. How do we account for this discrepancy?

It turns out that the accuracy of our memory depends on what strategy we choose for remembering and the way we are asked to remember.

Inaccuracy in Memory

When we casually remember our past actions and attitudes, implicit beliefs can reliably bias our memories. If we think of ourselves as consistent over time – as many people do – we remember our past self as more similar to our present self than it actually was. We have a consistency bias. This is especially true with political views. Alternatively, if we believe we have changed significantly, then our memory will exaggerate the differences between our past and present selves. People who have transgressed in the past may remember themselves as very different people, even when personality measures show that they are similar. So we can also have an inconsistency bias.

If we remember personal events with any goal other than maximizing detail and accuracy, the information we select from memory can be biased – by beliefs about ourselves and by our personal goals. Even though the outline of the memory is accurate, the details we select and omit may bolster particular traits or themes in our lives – happiness, courage injustice, accomplishment, fun.

Accuracy in Memory

When our goal is comprehensive and detailed remembering, our personal memories can be very accurate – if we choose the right strategies.

To maximize accuracy, retrieve a memory, study the images that come to mind, and tell everything you see in your mind’s eye and everything you know about that event. Let that memory lead to other memories and describe those linked memories in the same way. You are practicing reflective introspection – a method that stretches back to the 19th century and continues today as the basis for contemporary research on autobiographical memory.

Representations and Retrieval Pathways

Keep in mind that when we retrieve a long-term memory, there are two factors involved: the memory representation itself and the retrieval pathway to that memory. Memory representations remain vivid and detailed over many years, even while retrieval pathways may become overgrown and inaccessible with disuse. In fact, losing retrieval strength while maintaining storage strength is adaptable because it prevents old information from interfering with current remembering, while also keeping this old information available when it is needed. When these older memory representations are retrieved, the information is undiminished. That’s how a memory we haven’t thought of for years can return with surprising clarity and detail.

Two Kinds of Memory

It also makes a difference if we are recalling freely or if we are asked questions. Survivors of trauma, for example, can freely recall very accurately many years after the traumatic events – in some cases more accurately than the documented record. However, when these same people are asked specific questions, their answers may be inaccurate. Why this difference?

Memories exist at two levels: primary memory and integrated memory. Primary memory is the representation of the original phenomenal experience: visual images, sounds, smells, tastes, emotions, and bodily sensations. Integrative memory is constructed from the images in primary memory as well as related memories and general knowledge. In casual remembering, we often draw on integrative memories. If we are asked a question and the required information is not in primary memory, then we may refer to our integrated, constructed memories or make educated guesses based on general knowledge. When this happens, remembering may be inaccurate. However, if we are allowed to access and describe our primary memories freely, without questions, then our descriptions remain faithful to representations of our original phenomenal experience.

If a critical piece of information is not available in primary memory, we can simply say we do not remember. If the questioner presses us for a specific answer, then mistakes can occur. That is why witnesses to a crime should first tell their own memories, uninterrupted, before being asked specific questions.

How to Remember Accurately

To strive for accuracy in personal memory, use these strategies: 1) focus on retrieving images in primary memory, 2) provide comprehensive descriptions of these primary memories, 3) be aware of and try to avoid the influence of implicit beliefs about oneself and others, and 4) recall freely before answering specific questions. Our memories are not creative inventions that change kaleidoscopically every time we access them. Although we may shape our integrated memories to support views of ourselves and others, we have not evolved to misremember the world. By choosing the right strategies, we can strive to remember our original experiences consistently and accurately. We can depend on our memories.

For more information about this topic and the author, see:

More from Psychology Today

More from Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today