100 things You Should Know About People: #6 — You Reconstruct Your Memories

Try this task — Think back to a particular event that happened at least 5 years ago. Maybe it was a wedding, or a family gathering, or a dinner you went to with friends, or a vacation. Pick one for our purposes here, and remember the event. Remember the people, and where you were and maybe you can remember the weather, or what you were wearing.

Memories as movies? — We tend to experience our memories of events like this as little movie clips that play back in our minds. And because we experience them this way we have a tendency to think that memories are stored in entirety and never change. But that’s not what happens.

Memories are reconstructed — Our memories are actually reconstructed every time we think of them. They aren’t movie clips that are stored in the brain in a certain location like files on a hard drive. They are nerve pathways that are firing anew each time we remember the event. This makes for some interesting effects. For example, the memory can change.

Subsequent events can affect the memory — Other events that occur after the original event can change the memory of the original event. At the original event, you and your cousin were close friends. But later on you have an argument and a falling-out that lasts for years. Your memory of the first event might include your cousin being aloof and cold, even if that is not true. The later experience has changed your memory.

Mixing events — It is easy to start mixing up memories. So that things that happened at two separate events become fused into one. Your cousin was pleasant at one event, and not pleasant at the other, but over time your memories about which is which can become confused.

Filling in of gaps — You will also start to fill in your memory gaps with “made up” sequences of events, but these will seem as real to you as the original event. You can’t remember who else was at the family dinner, but Aunt Jolene is usually present at these events, and so over time your memory of the event will include Aunt Jolene.

Eyewitness testimony — Elizabeth Loftus is one of the earliest psychology researchers to study reconstructive memory. She was studying eyewitness testimonies, and was especially interested in whether language can affect memory.

Bumped, hit, or smashed — In her research Loftus would show a video clip of an automobile accident. Then she would ask a series of questions about the accident. She would change the way she worded the questions, for example, sometimes she would phrase it as: “How fast would you estimate the car was going when it hit the other vehicle”, or “How fast would you estimate the car was going when it smashed the other vehicle.” And she would ask participants in the study if they remembered seeing broken glass.

You can guess — When she used the word smashed the estimated speed was higher than when she used the word hit. And more than twice as many people remembered seeing broken glass if the word smashed was used rather than the word hit.

So what’s the impact? — Since memories are reconstructed, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • The words you use are important. They can actually affect people’s memories.
  • You can’t rely on self-reports of past behavior. People will not remember accurately what they or others did or said.
  • Watch out for how and what you say if you are interviewing people, for example, interviewing users for a usability or user experience study. You can influence their responses with the words you use.
  • Similarly, take what users say later, when they are remembering using an interface, with a grain of salt. It’s being reconstructed

And if you’d like to read some of Elizabeth Loftus’ seminal work in the area:

Elizabeth F. Loftus and John C. Palmer, Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction:
An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589 (1974).


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11 Replies to “100 things You Should Know About People: #6 — You Reconstruct Your Memories”

  1. yes this very true, rings true to me also, that humans are liable to delete and distort things that they have the inability to process, knowing that the brain can only process 7 + or – 2 bits of information at any given time, then the reconstruction of memories (sounds, pictures, movies) is evident.

    thank you for the post

  2. Why is Loftus the memory expert who keeps being cited? Her most famous studies have all been denounced time and again as being fraudulent; she is a quack and a monster who defends pedophiles and murderers (Ted Bundy, OJ Simpson, Timothy McVeigh among others).

    Yes, memories aren’t completely accurate (I heard one study say about 70% of the time, which is still pretty good). It should also be known that the more frequently you remember something, the less accurate it is. Therefore, if you are remembering something for the first time (like, say, a dissociated memory), it is MORE likely to be accurate on average.

    While it should be acknowledged that memories aren’t perfect, they should not be dismissed.

  3. Sitakali — Elizabeth Loftus is not without contoversy, that is true. But Stanford (where she has been a professor for years) stands by her research, as do many many other memory researchers. Her work has been replicated. I don’t doubt that she’s struggled in cross-examination during legal cases. So would I. One may not agree with her willingness to defend criminals, but I still believe her research is solid and should be cited. However, thanks for writing in. All opinions are welcome :)

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