I have constructed a deeper understanding of myself through direct experience and introspection on my physical, personality, and other characteristics. However, this self-concept is not guaranteed to reflect those of others. So, who are you? Are you the choices that you make? Your past experiences? The people you regularly associate with? Perhaps, more specifically, your collective memories? Memories are deeply personal and, when accurate, are reflective of the experiences and information you have gathered from the external world.
Memory, as we have discussed in class, is crucial for many aspects of learning and socialization. As we learn things from our external environment, information gets encoded and stored in our memory. We are then usually able to retrieve that information at a later time. However, being that our memory is reconstructive, recollections are not a carbon copy of what we perceive or experience. Sometimes, the process of retrieving memories is imperfect. False memories are extreme recollections of events that are either highly distorted or completely inaccurate. People with false memories are usually adamant about the accuracy of said memories. These are severe cases involving substantial errors in memory retrieval. What would cause such significant lapses?
Enter suggestibility, one of the seven sins of memory we covered in class today. Receiving new information after an event can alter one’s memory of what occurred. A study conducted in 1974 by Loftus and Palmer involved exposing participants to various videos of car collisions. After witnessing each individual collision, they were asked specific framing questions, including “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed/collided/bumped/hit/contacted) each other?” As you might expect, the slight variance in wording to describe each collision resulted in participants reporting higher than average speeds on questions that used more extreme terminology such as “smashed” and “collided.” Merely altering the presentation of a statement, inflecting a particular tone, or including polarizing details in explanations, can affect how a recipient interprets and encodes that information into their own memory. More importantly, skewing one’s memory of information and events can lead to both the propagation of falsehoods and all-out psychological manipulation.
In the case of this study, suggestions made through subtle alterations in word choice led to significant changes in eyewitness testimony. The reason for this form of evidence losing its credibility in the court of law over the centuries is our growing understanding of memory. Memory is flexible, perhaps a little too much so. We as humans are naturally biased, notably, in that we tend to notice and exaggerate some experiences and minimize or overlook others to meet expected outcomes (the introspection illusion!). Broadly speaking, no matter the individual or circumstances, being convincing does not mean that one is truthful.
Consider this quote by Frank Herbert:
“Belief can be manipulated. Only knowledge is dangerous.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Now, consider the questions we introduced at the beginning of this post. If our perceptions of “self” are, in fact, built upon subjective experiences and resulting memories, it is essential to draw the line between beliefs and knowledge. When we are confident that we know something factually, we do not usually go back and try to verify it. Our beliefs, however, are continually being challenged; by ourselves, people around us, situations, and so forth. Our beliefs, even when flawed or manipulated, make us unique. They dictate our individual and social behaviors, determination of what is right and wrong, how we perceive ourselves and others, and so much more.
That was a lot. I will leave you with a video that I found to be super fascinating regarding the perception of self and the formation of memories. In this video, Michael Stevens, the (subjective) genius behind the Vsauce YouTube channel, subjects participants to a modified version of a false memory experiment conducted by Loftus & Pickrell (1995). The goal of this experiment was to determine whether “reminding” participants of details from partially-fabricated childhood experiences affected their recall of said memories. It also includes a demonstration of “choice blindness,” a phenomenon in which people incorrectly claim that they fully understand the roots of their thoughts and emotions. Despite this, they are blind to their own choices and preferences when forced to act on a task.
“If even the most basic parts of you, like your memories or your past, can be forgotten or manipulated, how can you know ever really know who “you” are?”
1. Formation of false memories, Loftus and Pickrell (1995): https://webfiles.uci.edu/eloftus/Loftus_Pickrell_PA_95.pdf
2. Loftus and Palmer suggestibility study, “Reconstruction of automobile destruction” https://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html
3. Eyewitness testimony: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/uncategorized/myth-eyewitness-testimony-is-the-best-kind-of-evidence.html
4. False Memory post on a fellow cognitive psych blog: http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2018/04/26/heres-a-suggestion-dont-trust-your-false-memory/#more-4141