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Belief About Memory Ability Becomes Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Train memory like memory athletes do.

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 poor memory ability can cause poor memory. People often think they are stuck with whatever memory capability they have, for better a worse. Not true! The lesson is that anybody can improve memory ability, if they learn how (I have two books that explain how). On the other hand, if you believe you have a poor memory, you may not do what is necessary to improve your memory capability.


1. Memory “athletes” who participate in memory tournaments train to improve their memory. Joshua Foer, author of the memory book, Moonwalking with Einstein, was a journalist with an ordinary memory. In his reporting on memory athletes, he became enamored with how they achieved amazing feats of memory. So he learned how they did it, trained, and in 2006 won the U. S. Memory Championship. When he later quit training, his memory ability returned to normal.

2. Another line of evidence comes from the elderly in China. There, old age is venerated and researchers have noticed that older Chinese do NOT have poor memories. Picking up on this theme,HarvardUniversityresearchers 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.


Belief changes attitude, and attitude changes performance. Psychologist Martin Seligman wrote a magnificent book, Learned Optimism, which points out that both optimism and pessimism are learned explanatory styles that 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.

It doesn’t take long to learn a limiting explanatory style that says you are as good as you can get. I see this all the time in students, many of whom don’t really believe they can improve their memory capability, even when I show them how. Instead of using the new approaches I teach, they fall back on their old ways of learning, which usually involves no particular strategy and the use of rote memory.


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. The implications for real-world memory performance seem clear. Believing can change our attitude and motivate us to do the things that will make it so.

Dr. Bill Klemm. a.k.a. “Memory Medic,” is a Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University. He has spent a career in brain research. His 50 years of experience with students and his own aging have given him additional insights into how memory can be improved.

“If your memory is ill,

Dr. Bill is your pill”


Foer, Joshua. 2011. Moonwalking with Einstein. New York: Penguin

Klemm, W. R. 2012. Memory Power 101.

Klemm, W. R. 2011. Better Grades. Less Effort. Benecton.

Levy B. R, and Langer, E. (1994) Aging free from negative stereotypes: Successful memory among the American deaf and in China. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 66:935–943

Seligman, M. E. P. 1991. Learned Optimism.New York: A. A. Knopf.