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Reconstruction From Memory in Naturalistic Environments

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Reconstruction From Memory in Naturalistic Environments

Have you ever played one of those "what is missing from this picture" or "what is wrong with this picture" games? Was it hard or easy? Humans naturally look for certain items in certain locations. If someone shows us a picture of a kitchen, we will expect to see a stove, refrigerator, sink, cabinets, etc. We won't expect to see a bed!

Memory reconstruction in naturalistic environments theory

Reconstructive memory is a theory that suggests memories are not just what is encoded and stored exactly but are affected by prior knowledge in the form of schemas. This means that we can't play back our memories like a video recording because they are influenced and manipulated by our prior knowledge.

Reconstructive memory refers to the process of putting together information from stored knowledge when there's no existing clear memory of an event.

Previous memory research has found that prior knowledge (i.e. schemas) has a negative effect on our memory. It changes and removes aspects of memories, such as in Bartlett's (1932) War of the Ghosts study.

Schemas are pre-existing mental representations or expectations of something based on our past knowledge.

However, this model focused mainly on errors in memory due to prior knowledge. In particular, lab studies of this nature have been designed to draw out false memories. This is because the item that participants expect to see the most is withheld from what they need to remember. This means that studies like this one had low ecological validity. The conclusion was that prior knowledge changes episodic memories.

Suppose participants are shown an office scene in which they would expect to see books. However, there are no books shown. Then, researchers ask the participants to recall the scene. Many of them would recall seeing books as they are part of the schema of an office.

The conclusion was that prior knowledge changes episodic memories. However, Steyvers & Hemmer (2012) theorised that prior knowledge could help save memories. This is because, based on what we already know, we would expect to find certain things in a scene, e.g. a computer in an office.

In lab studies of memories, stimuli are normally manipulated, like in our example of an office scene with no books. Studies like this don't reflect a naturalistic environment. Therefore, Steyvers & Hemmer (2012) theorised that if experiments were conducted to find the effect of prior knowledge on memory in naturalistic environments, the result would be positive rather than negative.

Reconstruction From Memory in Naturalistic Environments office scene StudySmarterNaturalistic office environment, freepik

Steyvers & Hemmer (2012): Reconstruction from memory in naturalistic environments

To investigate how prior knowledge affects the reconstruction of memory in naturalistic environments - the interaction between episodic memories and prior knowledge. All participants were from the University of California. The researchers divided them into three groups (expectation test, perception test, and experimental memory condition).

Phase 1 - Initial Testing

Expectation Test: 22 participants were asked to name objects they would expect to find in five different naturalistic settings: office, kitchen, hotel, urban setting, and dining room. They had to name the objects by typing them on a screen and had one minute for each scene. The researchers measured the frequency of all objects that participants had named, e.g. all 22 participants expected to see a television in a hotel room.

Reconstruction From Memory in Naturalistic Environments Memory Reconstruction in Naturalistic Environments theory StudySmarter

Naturalistic hotel room environment, freepik

Perception Test: Another group of 22 participants was shown 25 images of these five naturalistic scenes. They had to recall all the objects they had seen. Objects were presented according to their recall frequency (most and least recalled).

Phase 2 - Experiment

49 participants who hadn't been part of either initial test were randomly selected. From the perception test in the initial testing, the researchers took ten images — two from each of the five scenes (office, kitchen, hotel, urban setting, and dining room). These were the two that had the highest recall frequency.

Participants were split into two groups. Group 1 was shown the images for two seconds each. The hypothesis was that the participants would not remember all the details due to the short time. Because of this, they would rely on semantic knowledge when recalling objects in the scenes. Group 2 was shown five images for ten seconds each. This was a test of episodic memory as these participants had more time to look at the images. The participants were asked to recall the objects they saw in the images.

Results of the Study

In the two-second condition, the participants correctly recalled an average of 7.75 objects. In the ten-second condition, the score was higher — 10.05 objects. For both conditions, the average accuracy was 90 percent. The researchers also examined how often the participants named objects that weren't in the scenes. Incorrect recall of high probability objects was nine percent (probability was calculated from the initial tests). Incorrect recall of low probability objects was 18 percent.

These results are different from other research investigating the effects of prior knowledge on memory. In those studies, highly expected objects were incorrectly recalled more. In this experiment, high probability objects were likely to be in the images as the scenes were naturalistic, which led to low error rates.

Reconstruction From Memory in Naturalistic Environments Memory Reconstruction in Naturalistic Environments theory StudySmarter

Naturalistic environment urban setting, freepik

According to this model, semantic knowledge can help accurately recall episodic memories of naturalistic settings. This is beneficial as more cognitive resources are available and can be used to attend to other parts of the scene, such as novel items.

Evaluation of Steyvers & Hemmer (2012)

Strengths of the study include:

  • High ecological validity: As Steyvers & Hemmer (2012) used naturalistic environments and didn't manipulate conditions, the study has high ecological validity.
  • Generalisability: the high ecological validity allows us to generalise their findings, and it shows us how reconstructive memory normally functions in terms of the interaction between prior knowledge and episodic memories.
  • Methodology: this experiment had a highly controlled, standardised procedure, which makes it easily replicable.
  • No order effects/bias: these were eradicated by using different participants for each group.
  • No gender bias: both males and females took part in this study.
  • Ethics: the participants had the right to withdraw, gave informed consent, were debriefed, and encountered little psychological harm.
  • High internal validity: this was a lab experiment with an element of control, which increased internal validity. This control also benefited the researchers as it allowed them to control the number of images participants saw to limit the interference from previously viewed scenes.

Weaknesses include:

  • Culture and age bias: the participants were students from the University of California, meaning only young adults from one place were tested, which may have affected the findings. Therefore, further research with a wider range of participants is needed to (dis)confirm the results.
  • Individual differences: there may have been differences in participants' abilities that could have affected the results of both the initial testing and the main experiment.

Reconstruction From Memory in Naturalistic Environments - Key takeaways

  • Reconstructive memory is a theory that suggests memories are not just what is encoded and stored, but are affected by prior knowledge in the form of schemas.
  • The aim of the study was to investigate the interaction between episodic memories and prior knowledge.
  • There were three parts to the study:
    1. an expectation test (participants were asked to list objects they'd expect to find in five naturalistic scenes),
    2. a perception test (recalling objects shown in 25 images),
    3. and an experiment where participants were shown ten images for either two seconds (to test prior knowledge) or ten seconds (to test episodic memory). Then, they had to recall the objects they saw in the images.
  • Steyvers and Hemmer concluded that semantic knowledge can help accurately recall episodic memories of naturalistic settings.

  • This is beneficial as more cognitive resources are available and can be used to attend to other parts of the scene, such as novel items.

Frequently Asked Questions about Reconstruction From Memory in Naturalistic Environments

Reconstructive memory is a theory that suggests memories are not just what is encoded and stored but are influenced by prior knowledge in the form of schemas. This means that memories are not played back exactly like a video recording but are affected and manipulated by prior knowledge. 

Bartlett is associated with this view. He conducted a seminal study in 1932 called War of the Ghosts.

Yes, episodic memory is reconstructive because prior knowledge affects our memories.

This is because schemas change memories to fit our expectations of certain things and situations. Research has found that prior knowledge changes and alters memories to fit our schemas and make more sense to us (e.g. Bartlett, 1932).

Bartlett (1932) was the first who propose the Reconstructive memory theory. According to this model, memories are not just what is encoded and stored exactly but are affected by prior knowledge in the form of schemas (a pre-existing mental representation or expectation of something based on our past knowledge). 


Memories are not just recorded like a tape recorder that can replay it back. Instead, we reconstruct them imaginatively.


We reconstruct memories by trying to fit them into our existing schemas, and the more difficult this is, the more likely that some things will be forgotten and distortions will be made.

Final Reconstruction From Memory in Naturalistic Environments Quiz

Question

What is reconstructive memory theory?

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Answer

Reconstructive memory is a theory of memory that states memories are not just what is encoded and stored exactly, but are affected by prior knowledge in the form of schemas. They don't have to be remembered as they were stored but rather can be inferred based on our prior knowledge.

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Question

What was the problem with most of the previous research done regarding the effect of prior knowledge/schemas on accuracy of memories?

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Answer

Previous research on the effect of prior knowledge on the accuracy of memory mostly had manipulated conditions that purposely excluded the highest associated item to be missing from the materials participants had to remember. This meant these studies had low ecological validity

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Question

What did Steyvers and Hemmer (2012) do to increase ecological validity for research investigating the effect of prior knowledge on accuracy of memory?

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Answer

Steyvers and Hemmer (2012) experimented with naturalistic environments, increasing ecological validity, to see what the effect of prior knowledge on accuracy of memory was actually like in everyday life. 

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Question

What was the aim of the study conducted by Steyvers and Hemmer (2012)?

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Answer

They wanted to investigate the interaction between episodic memories and prior knowledge (semantic memories). 

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Question

Briefly, what did the Expectation Test in the initial testing of Steyvers and Hemmer's (2012) study consist of?

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Answer

This test was to see, what a person expects to be in a scene, based on prior knowledge. Participants were asked to list objects they'd expect to find in 5 naturalistic scenes, e.g. an office. 

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Question

Briefly, what did the Perception Test in the initial testing of Steyvers and Hemmer's (2012) study consist of? 

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Answer

A separate group of participants (different from the ones that did the expectation test) were shown 25 images of 5 scenes and were asked to recall objects they saw. 

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Question

What did the main experiment part of the study by Steyver and Hemmer (2012) consist of?

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Answer

49 new participants were shown 5 images from those 5 scenes for either 2 (to test prior knowledge) or 10 seconds (to test episodic memory). They were then asked to recall which objects they saw in the images.

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Question

What were the results for the average amount of objects recalled correctly for the 2 and 10-second conditions?

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Answer

On average, correctly recalled items were 7.75 for the 2 seconds condition and 10.05 for the 10-second condition. 

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Question

What are the correct results?

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Answer

Incorrect recall of highly probable objects was 9% 

Incorrect recall of lowly probable objects was 18%.

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Question

What was the conclusion of the study by Steyver and Hemmer (2012)?

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Answer

Semantic knowledge can help accurately recall episodic memories of naturalistic settings and is beneficial as this makes more cognitive resources available for other tasks. 

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Question

Why was high ecological validity a strength of the study by Steyver and Hemmer (2012)? 

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Answer

Because Steyvers & Hemmer (2012) used naturalistic environments in their experiment and didn't manipulate conditions to remove the highest associated items from the materials participants had to remember and recall as other studies did, they have high ecological validity. 


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Question

Why was high internal validity a strength of the study by Steyver and Hemmer (2012)?  

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Answer

Since it was a lab experiment there was an element of control, which increased internal validity. This control also benefited them since it allowed them to control the number of images participants saw to limit the interference from previously viewed scenes. 

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Question

Which type of biases were and were not a problem in the study by Steyver and Hemmer (2012)?   

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Answer

There was no gender bias, but there was culture and age bias, because the study's participants were students from the University of California, meaning only young adults were tested and only those from California. 

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Question

What is the definition of reconstructive memory?

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Answer

Reconstructive memory refers to the process of putting together information from stored knowledge when there's no existing clear memory of an event.

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