The Memory Lane
The Memory Lane by (Erik) via Flickr

What’s the matter with memory? Lots!

Forget about the memory loss that comes along with aging.  Many scientific studies suggest that memory is malleable, corruptible, and is susceptible to believing false and even implausible events.

What’s the Matter with Memory?was a keynote address presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the Council of Science Editors, delivered by Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.

Loftus began her presentation describing studies in which individuals under extreme stress (like being held in a mock prisoner of war camp) can easily be trained to recall a false interrogator.

The rest of the talk focused on how even weak and banal suggestions can have subjects believe false events. Suggesting that you got sick as a child on strawberry ice cream may lead you to avoid this dessert in the future. The effect can work the other way as well — subjects told that they enjoyed asparagus as a child were more likely to choose this vegetable as a snack. I’m sure the dieting industry, the legal profession, and the Pentagon are all paying close attention to this research.

I consider the broader point of this research to be that facts and their interpretation are highly contextual. Most of the social sciences view memory as a kind of playback model — people experience events and recall them at a future date. Bad recall means that either memory of an event has faded (like a cassette tape that has sat next to a speaker magnet too long) or that the individual is lying.

In the psychological thriller film, Memento, Leonard Shelby is a character suffering from a type of amnesia that prevents him from making new memories.  He believes that facts don’t lie.  If Leonard can only put them together, he can find the man who killed his wife. What Leonard doesn’t realize is that some of these facts are constructed by himself to help make sense of the world and to give him purpose.

Survey research, a very common methodology used in library and publisher studies, relies on recall to gather data on past behavior. Most of these studies ignore the fact that construction and wording of the survey questions may lead a respondent to either recall events in the past that may have not happened, or interpret these events very differently, such as asking a researcher the question, “Have you ever published an article in an Open Access journal?”

A colleague of mine once gave some advice on how to write a cover letter for a job. “What you do,” he described, “is write a fictional story in which all of your prior professional and personal experiences have led you to be the perfect match for this job. Practice telling the story a few times, and after a while, you’ll start believing it.”

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


1 Thought on "What’s Wrong with Memory?"

Kurosawa’s Rashomon is the classic film statement about the unreliability of memory, or to put it another way, the effect self-interest has on what one remembers. The “Rashomon effect” is often used to refer to the subjectivity of recollection.

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