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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

April 3, 2011

The Problem(s) with Memory-Part Three

In my last two entries, I discussed five of the seven “sins of memory” identified by Daniel L. Schacter in his book, The Seven Sins of Memory, How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. I will now discuss the last two sins.

The sixth “sin of memory” is bias. According to Schacter, bias “refers to distorting influences of our present knowledge, beliefs, and feelings on new experiences or our later memories of them.” Schacter identifies five different types of biases. “Consistency and change biases show how our theories about ourselves can lead us to reconstruct the past as overly similar to, or different from, the present. Hindsight biases reveal that recollections of past events are filtered by current knowledge. Egocentric biases illustrate the powerful role of the self in orchestrating perceptions and memories of realty. And stereotypical biases demonstrate how generic memories shape interpretation of the world, even when we are unaware of their existence or influence.”[i]

Schacter argues that consistency bias changes one’s memory of past events to reflect how one currently is viewing a situation. If we have an opinion on a subject now, consistency bias makes us want to remember that we always had that opinion, even though in realty we didn’t. Change bias changes one’s memory of past events to make one think that their current state is better than it was in the past, when in fact it hasn’t changed.

Hindsight bias is the phenomena that people’s memories of what they were predicting change after an event happens. A common example is the prediction of how well a sports team will do in a big game or season. After the game or season, people’s memories of their predictions before the event tend to match with whatever occurred. If you predicted a win, and the team lost, you tend to remember that you predicted the team would lose. If you predicted a loss, and the team won, you tend to remember that you predicted the team would lose.

Egocentric biases involve remembering past experience in a way that casts oneself in a positive light. Schacter discusses research on “positive illusions” in which most people believe that they are above average in various personality traits. Of course we can’t all be above average, and therefore some of us suffer from “positive illusions.”

Friedrich Nietzsche aptly conveys the meaning of egocentric bias in his aphorism: "I have done that, says my memory. I cannot have done that, says my pride, and remains adamant. At last, memory yields.”

Stereotype bias is when we remember past events in a way that is consistent with a stereotype of whatever it is that we are considering. If we think about a librarian, we may think about a woman with glasses that is quiet and introverted rather than an athletic extroverted male. When we remember a situation, we remember consistent with our stereotype, which then strengthens our stereotype. Schacter argues that this phenomena is also present in racism and sexism.

The seventh sin of memory according to Schacter is the sin of persistence. Persistence involves remembering things you want to forget. An example is music that keeps running through one’s head. This sin is often the underpinning of depression as people can develop persistent memories of failure. It also underpins post-traumatic stress disorder.

Schacter concludes his book by illustrating that his “seven sins” of memory could also be considered seven virtues of memories. Each of the sins has developed to allow humans to thrive.

The research on memory shows that human memory is not equivalent to recording a scene with a camera. The processes of memory make a remembrance a subjective impression of a past event--an approximation, with some memories being a more accurate approximations than others. I can recommend Schacter's book to anyone interested in memory.

[i] Schacter, Daniel L. (2001) The Seven Sins of Memory, How the Mind Forgets and Remember,N.Y., N.Y. p. 139

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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