By Emma Young
The general public has a pretty poor understanding of how memory works — and lawyers and clinical psychologists can be just as bad. At least, this is what many researchers have asserted, notes a team at University College London in a new paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. However, their research reveals that the idea that most people ignorantly subscribe to “memory myths” is itself a myth.
The wording of earlier studies, and also discrepancies in how memory experts and the general public tend to interpret the meaning of statements about memory, have painted a bleaker picture of public understanding than is actually the case, according to a series of studies led by Chris Brewin. This has important implications for cases in which ideas about memory are highly relevant — among jurors in a court room, for example.
The researchers first explored one of the “50 great myths of popular psychology”: that memory is like a video camera.
The strongest support for this “great myth” comes from a 2011 nationally representative phone survey in the US, in which 24% of those surveyed “strongly agreed” and 39% “mostly agreed” with the statement (the precise wording is important): “Human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” Memory experts all disagreed. The case against the public, it seemed, was closed.
But this study only asked about the video camera analogy and didn’t ask whether they thought it was ‘like’ anything else. And perhaps, Brewin and his team wondered, experts and lay people might make different assumptions about what it implies, with experts taking the video camera analogy to mean that everything we see and hear is faithfully and fully recorded, whereas the participants might have thought that our memories store some scenes and interactions accurately, quite (if not entirely) like a video camera.
Their study of 172 young people from 27 different countries found that the video camera analogy was highly endorsed, but so too were statements likening memory to a “library”, a “diary entry”, and “rooms in a house”. And when the video camera analogy was explicitly linked to the assumption that events could be played back exactly (my italics) as they happened, more than 70 percent disagreed with it.
A subsequent study of 200 US adults found that people did report experiencing certain memories as a series of scenes “like a videotape”. These included memories of a son’s first birthday, for example, but also of everyday events like conversations with friends. This subjective experience was an important reason why two thirds of this sample endorsed the statement that memory was “partly” like a video camera.
The vast majority also agreed that all kinds of factors can affect a memory’s accuracy, and that some memories turn out to be mistaken. In fact, they were more likely to agree with the idea that memories are often mistaken, and have the potential to completely decay, than with statements asserting that they are highly accurate, or permanent. “In particular, statements consistent with scientific consensus that memory is neither complete (94%) nor passive (93%) were endorsed with very little disagreement,” the team reports.
A further study found that most lay people agreed with something that has been considered a myth, but which recent evidence has supported: that, under certain circumstances, the more confidence an eyewitness reports in a memory, the more accurate it is.
This groups’ attitudes to “repressed memories” was also explored. In contract to experimental psychologists, lay people and some clinical psychologists have tended to endorse the idea that traumatic memories can be repressed for many years and then recovered. This is often put forward as another example of belief in a memory myth.
But Brewin and his team found that, again, differences in interpretation of the terminology, rather than differences in ideas, seemed to underpin the discrepancy. The lay participants and professional psychologists tended to think of deliberate, rather than unconscious, “repression” of traumatic events. And while the idea that memories can be unconsciously repressed is certainly controversial, deliberate burying of upsetting memories is not.
Clearly, this new research doesn’t imply that the general public has a perfect understanding of memory. “Nevertheless, the findings suggest that non-expert opinions about memory may be more closely aligned with the evidence than has hitherto been appreciated,” the team writes.
This is important for legal and clinical contexts, they add. For example, earlier video camera results shouldn’t be taken to indicate that jurors don’t understand how memory works — or that testimony from experts about how memory works is essential in a trial.