Human memories: ‘are unreliable because of tendency for complete storylines’

Human memories: ‘are unreliable because of tendency for complete storylines’

Unreliable Human Memories Due to Storytelling Tendencies

Scientists from the University of Sussex have conducted experiments revealing the unreliability of human memories, primarily attributed to the human tendency to construct complete narratives. Their research indicates that people often misremember the conclusions of events and sometimes even generate memories of events that never occurred. This phenomenon is linked to the human preference for stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends.

Recollection of Missing Endings in Video Clips

In the experiments, participants were shown video clips lacking “end” scenes. Remarkably, when asked to recall these videos a week later, individuals falsely remembered the endings of the clips nearly half of the time (42.5%). The study’s lead researcher, Chris Bird, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and co-director of Sussex Neuroscience, expressed surprise at how frequently participants filled in the missing endings when later asked to remember the videos.

Creation of Coherent Memories

Bird noted that this tendency to create complete narratives and memories with logical “best guesses” about experiences does not necessarily reveal memory system flaws but rather an adaptation to the world people live in. It results in coherent and plausible memories, even if some details were never actually witnessed.

Experimental Details and False Memories

The experiments involved 351 participants under the age of 35 who watched 24 video clips depicting everyday human activities in various scenarios. They were tasked with recalling the events shortly after viewing or a week later. The research found that participants often recalled false memories that were similar in nature. For instance, when watching a paused baseball game with the ball in flight toward the batter, 20% falsely claimed to have seen the batter hit the ball when recalling the video events a week later.

Effect of Expected Endings on Memory

Interestingly, when video clips concluded as expected, such as showing the batter hitting the ball at the end, participants’ memories remained mostly accurate, with only 8.2% developing false memories.

Understanding Memory Bias

Dominika Varga, a PhD student involved in the research, emphasized that memories are not objective video recordings of the past but are heavily influenced by pre-existing knowledge and beliefs about the world. She suggested that awareness of these biases could lead to more cautious reliance on memories for important decisions and greater scrutiny of information before accepting it as absolute truth.

Future Steps in Research

The next phase of the research will involve conducting similar experiments with older individuals to further explore the impact of age on memory reliability. These findings have been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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