National survey reveals widespread mistaken beliefs about memory

A new national survey published in PLOS One reveals that a substantial majority of people in the U.S. think that memory is more powerful, objective and reliable than it actually is. Their ideas are at odds with decades of scientific research.

(Before reading further, test your own ideas about memory.)

Researchers from the University of Illinois conducted the first large-scale, nationally representative survey of the U.S. population to measure intuitive beliefs about how memory works. The survey was conducted during research for the authors (Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris) book, “The Invisible Gorilla,” which explores commonly held (and often incorrect) beliefs about memory and perception.

According to the authors, “our book highlights ways in which our intuitions about the mind are mistaken. And one of the most compelling examples comes from beliefs about memory: People tend to place greater faith in the accuracy, completeness and vividness of their memories than they probably should.”

The telephone survey, carried out by the opinion research company SurveyUSA, asked 1,500 respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about memory. Nearly two-thirds of respondents likened human memory to a video camera that records information precisely for later review. Approximately half believed that once experiences are encoded in memory, those memories do not change. Nearly 40 percent felt that the testimony of a single confident eyewitness should be enough evidence to convict someone of a crime.

These and other beliefs about memory diverge from the views of cognitive psychologists with many years of experience studying how memory works. While studies have shown, for example, that confident eyewitnesses are accurate more often than eyewitnesses who lack confidence, even confident witnesses are wrong about 30 percent of the time.” The researchers point out that many studies have demonstrated the ways in which memory can be unreliable and even manipulated. According to Simons, “we’ve known since the 1930s that memories can become distorted in systematic ways,” he said. “We’ve known since the 1980s that even memory for vivid, very meaningful personal events can change over time.

“The fallibility of memory is well established in the scientific literature, but mistaken intuitions about memory persist,” Chabris said. “The extent of these misbeliefs helps explain why so many people assume that politicians who may simply be remembering things wrong must be deliberately lying.”

The new findings also have important implications for proceedings in legal cases, the researchers said. Simons states that “our memories can change even if we don’t realize they have changed. That means that if a defendant can’t remember something, a jury might assume the person is lying. And misremembering one detail can impugn their credibility for other testimony, when it might just reflect the normal fallibility of memory.”

Book: The Invisible Gorilla