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Reconstructive Memory

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Reconstructive Memory

Reconstructive memory is a theory of memory that states that memories consist not only of what it encodes and stores but of prior knowledge in the form of schemas.

Schema is a pre-existing mental representation or expectation of something based on prior knowledge.

Bartlett (1932) first proposed the notion of reconstructive memory.Memories are not like a tape recorder that plays back an exact recording. Instead, it reconstructs them imaginatively.According to our schemas, we alter our memories to fit what we expect them to be.We reconstruct memories by trying to fit them into our existing schemas, and the more difficult this is, the more likely it is that some things will be forgotten and distortions will occur.

Reconstructive memory refers to the process of assembling information from stored knowledge when there is no clear memory of an event.

Reconstructive nature of memory

We have already established that our memory makes use of schemas. But how does this happen?

  • We have schemas for all sorts of things, such as how we see a criminal or what counts as food.

  • Our memory uses these schemas to organise things. When we remember an event, our schemas tell us what should happen.

  • Schemas fill in the gaps in our memory (confabulation) and influence us to remember things that fit our schema. Details in our memories can even be changed or removed.

  • Sometimes we assimilate new information, i.e., we change our schemas to fit what we have learned.

  • Other times, we accommodate new information, i.e., we change our memories to fit our existing schemas.

  • Bartlett explains that accommodation occurs in two ways:

    • Levelling, which refers to downplaying or removing details from memory.

    • Sharpening, which is adding to or exaggerating details.Reconstructive Memory Accommodation StudySmarterWe accommodate new information by changing our memories to fit our existing schemas, Freepik

Studies of reconstructive memory

Let’s now explore some studies of reconstructive memory to get a grip on the subject.

War of the Ghosts (Bartlett, 1932)

  • Twenty British males were told a Native American ghost story with several unusual features.
  • Bartlett chose this story because it was culturally unfamiliar to the participants.

  • Participants read the story and subsequently recalled it on several occasions: after several hours, weeks, days, months, or even years (repeated reproduction).

  • They also had to read the story and reproduce it to other participants (serial reproduction).

Results

Bartlett found that participants changed the story as they tried to remember it (a process called distortion).Three patterns of distortion occurred:

1. Assimilation: they changed the story to better match the participants’ cultural expectations (schemas), e.g., canoes and paddles became boats and oars. Thus, details of the story were unconsciously changed to fit British cultural norms. A memory was filled in by adding new information to make sense.

2. Levelling: the story also became shorter when participants retold it, omitting information they considered unimportant. The word count dropped from 330 to 180 (the shortest count was a retelling after the longest time, which was two years).

3. Sharpening: participants changed the order of events in the story to make more sense to them. They also used more familiar terms to them from their own culture. They also added details or emotions that were not initially present.

Conclusion

Overall, participants remembered the story’s main themes, but the unfamiliar aspects were changed to fit the participants’ own cultural expectations and be better remembered. This shows that we reconstruct our memories according to our schemas.

Allport and Postman (1947)

  • They showed the participants a drawing of a quarrel in a subway train.
  • Then they had to describe the picture to another participant, then to another, and so on (serial reproduction).
  • The black character was well dressed in the drawing, while the white character had a rough appearance.

Results

Serial duplication seemed to reverse the description of their appearances, to the point of describing the black character as holding a knife (there were no knives in the original).

Conclusion

Given the participants’ existing mental representations, information was altered through accommodation to correspond to and fit within their schemas.

Loftus and Palmer (1974)

  • Researchers showed participants film clips of actual car accidents and then gave them a series of questions to answer.
  • There was one crucial question that they changed. It was about how fast the cars were going.
  • They also changed the intensity of the verb in this question, which asked about the speed of the cars, with a series of verbs such as ‘hit’, ‘smashed’, collided’.Showed participants film clips of real car accidents and then gave them a set of questions to answer.

Results

Participants who were asked the question with the verb ‘smashed’ recalled a higher speed of the cars (average 40.5 mph) than those who were asked with the word ‘hit’ (average 34 mph).Another group of participants watched a clip about a car accident and then answered a questionnaire about the speed of the cars (the verbs were either ‘hit’ or ‘smashed’). A week later, participants had to complete another questionnaire with the crucial question, ‘Did you see any broken glass?’ (There wasn’t any in the clip).

Incorrect recall: who reported seeing broken glass?

  • 12% of the control group (who were not asked the speed question at all).

  • 14% of the ‘hit’ group.

  • 32% of the ‘smashed’ group.

Conclusion

Loftus and Palmer concluded that eyewitness testimony is unreliable because leading questions can influence it. Memory is reconstructed; it changes as we incorporate new information we learn after an incident. When we hear the word ‘smashed’, our schemas tell us there should be broken glass, and therefore we alter our memories to think that there was. After this change, it is difficult to distinguish which memories are true and false. There is no way back to the original.

Reconstructive memory: strengths and weaknesses

Strengths

Weaknesses

Since the 1930s and Bartlett’s study War of the Ghosts, lots of further research supported the idea of schemas. Loftus conducted a series of laboratory experiments on reconstructive memory and had strict experimental controls, collected quantitative data, and standardised procedures, which made them quite objective and reliable.

Bartlett’s study did not include many experimental controls. He asked participants to retell the story whenever it was convenient for them and did not set the same time frame for all participants.

In addition, there was no scoring system. Bartlett measured the changes made to the story subjectively, in his opinion.

Schemes can explain false memories. In a 2005 terrorist attack, witnesses saw a man named Charles De Menezes shot by police when they mistook him for a terrorist after the 7/7 bombing in London. The witnesses’ accounts varied widely and were often exaggerated. Their schemas about terrorists may have influenced their memories through sharpening and levelling.

Bartlett’s research was quite unrealistic and had no ecological validity, because asking British males to recall a Native American ghost story is unusual. However, Bartlett argued that the story had to be strange to cause participants to level and sharpen the details in their memories.

The theory of reconstructive memory is similar to Tulving’s theory of semantic memory because schemas are similar to semantic stores in which we keep our understanding and knowledge of relationships and rules. Thus, if one is true, it makes the other more plausible. Moreover, this suggests semantic memory has an even greater influence on episodic memory since pre-existing knowledge (schemas) can influence our recollection of events according to the theory of reconstructive memory.

One criticism of reconstructive memory theory is that it does not explain how we reconstruct memories, unlike other cognitive theories that explain the processes involved. Other approaches mention specific processes and brain parts where they occur (using lesion and brain scan studies). We do not know how schemas are formed, how they alter memories, where they are located, etc.

We can apply schemas knowledge to patients with memory loss (e.g., Clive Wearing) or dementia patients. They can still remember important schemas even if their amnesia confuses them, which can help reassure and focus them (e.g. Clive Wearing knew he loved his wife and the piano). We can also apply it to police work. Changes have been made to the way police deal with eyewitness testimonies and criminal evidence due to research into reconstructive memory.

Allport and Postman’s study is widely misrepresented. Many psychology textbooks and websites claim they showed participants a different picture (two white men, one holding a knife to the other). The white participants mistakenly remembered a black man holding the knife. However, this was NOT in the original study.

Reconstructive Memory - Key takeaways

  • Reconstructive memory refers to the process of piecing together information from stored knowledge when there is no clear memory of an event.
  • A schema is a pre-existing mental representation or expectation of something based on prior knowledge. We reconstruct past memories by trying to fit them into our existing schemas.
  • Assimilation means that we take in new information and change our schemas to fit what we have learned.
  • Accommodation means that we change our memories so that our schemas remain intact and unchanged. This happens in two ways: levelling, downplaying or removing details from memory, and sharpening, which is adding or exaggerating details.

Frequently Asked Questions about Reconstructive Memory

Reconstructive memory refers to the process of piecing together information from stored knowledge when there is no clear memory of an event.

Memories are not like a tape recorder that plays back an exact recording. Schemas (pre-existing mental representations) can influence and change our memory when we try to remember something.

Memories consist not only of what it encodes and stores but of prior knowledge in the form of schemas.

It tells us that our memory is not always accurate and can be changed. Therefore, changes have been made to the way police deal with eyewitness testimonies and criminal evidence due to research into reconstructive memory. It also provides more information about dementia and memory loss patients in that they still have schemas, which can help calm and focus them.

Memories consist not only of what it encodes and stores but of prior knowledge. According to our schemas, we change our memories to make them fit what we expect to happen. We do this through accommodation, which works in two ways: levelling, which is downplaying or removing details from memory, and sharpening, which is adding or exaggerating details. 

Final Reconstructive Memory Quiz

Question

What is schema theory in psychology?

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Answer

The schema theory is a cognitive theory that suggests that our knowledge is organised into mental frameworks/representations used to understand the self, others, concepts and the world. 

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Question

What are the strengths of the schema theory?

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Answer

The strengths of the schema theory are: 

  • It accounts for individualistic differences.
  • It takes into account family, peers, and cultural influences.
  • The fact that the theory has practical applications for understanding learning and memory processes shows the importance of schema theory.

Show question

Question

What are the weaknesses of the schema theory?

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Answer

The weaknesses of the schema theory are: 

  • The theory can be considered reductionist.
  • Schemas are not observable, and, therefore, it isn’t easy to measure them objectively and empirically.
  • Where schemas originate from is still questioned.

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Question

Can schemas influence the accuracy of memories?

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Answer

Yes.

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Question

Which of the following characteristics assimilation affects? 

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Answer

Dynamic.

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Question

Which type of schema matches the following description: ‘learning that your favourite brand of chocolate is Cadbury’s’.

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Answer

Self-schema.

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Question

Which type of schema matches the following description: ‘deciding to support the local mayor and community’.

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Answer

Role schema.

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Question

Does the schema theory predict that schemas are based only on individualistic experiences?

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Answer

No.

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Question

What type of mental functions are schemas?

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Answer

Higher-level.

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Question

How are schemas used as reference templates?

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Answer

The process of understanding new information involves comparing it with pre-existing schemas by trying to identify similar features. When they find a similar schema, the individual uses it as a reference template to generalise the phenomena. 

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Question

How do schemas save cognitive energy?

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Answer

Schemas save cognitive energy by providing a shortcut to faster processing of a lot of information. This ‘shortcut’ is essentially people generalising existing information. If a new concept or experience is similar to an existing schema, they use it to understand and predict the new concept.

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Question

What is a schema?

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Answer

A schema is a cognitive framework for how the brain organises and stores information to understand complex information, e.g., how we understand the self, others, concepts, and the world.

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Question

What is reconstructive memory?

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Answer

Reconstructive memory refers to the process of piecing together information from stored knowledge when there is no clear memory of an event.

Show question

Question

Why is memory considered an active reconstructive process? 


Show answer

Answer

Because schemas (pre-existing mental representations) can influence and change our memory when it is being recalled. 

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Question

How does reconstructive memory affect memory? 


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Answer

Memories are not just what is encoded and stored exactly, but are affected by prior knowledge. We change our memories to make it fit to what we expect to happen according to our schemas (confabulating).

Show question

Question

In what ways do schemas affect our memory?

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Answer

  • Sometimes we assimilate new information, i.e., we change our schemas to fit what we have learned.
  • Other times, we accommodate new information, i.e., we change our memories to fit our existing schemas.
  • Bartlett explains that accommodation occurs in two ways:
    • Levelling, which refers to downplaying or removing details from memory.
    • Sharpening, which is adding to or exaggerating details

Show question

Question

Why did Bartlett chose the Native American story to tell and be retold by participants?

Show answer

Answer

He chose this story because it would be culturally unfamiliar to participants and would be easier for him to examine any changes in the story.

Show question

Question

How did participants retell the War of the Ghosts story?

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Answer

Several times after a few hours, days, weeks, months, even years.

Show question

Question

What are the 2 main points about why reconstructive memory is important? 

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Answer

It tells us that our memory is not always accurate and can be changed. Therefore, changes have been made to the way police deal with eyewitness testimonies and criminal evidence due to research into reconstructive memory. Since Loftus and Palmer's (1947) findings, its clear that eyewitness testimonies aren't as reliable as we once thought.

It also provides more information about dementia and memory loss patients in that they still have schemas, which can help calm and focus them.

Show question

Question

What were 3 patterns of distortion that occurred in Bartlett's study and what do they mean?

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Answer

  • 1. Assimilation/Confabulation - The story became more consistent with participants' own cultural expectations.
  • 2. Levelling - The story was made shorter too when participants retold it, leaving out information they deemed unimportant.

  • 3. Rationalism - Participants changed the order of the story's events so it made more sense to them. They also used terms that were more familiar to them from their own culture.   

Show question

Question

What did Allport and Postman (1947) find?

Show answer

Answer

The description of characters’ appearances seemed to change to the opposite through serial reproduction, to the extent of the black character being described as holding a knife (there were no knives in the original).

Show question

Question

Through which process were participants’ memories distorted in Allport and Postman’s (1947) study?

Show answer

Answer

Because of the participants’ existing mental representations, newly added information was altered through assimilation to match and fit into their schemas.

Show question

Question

What were the 2 verbs that changed in the question about speed in Loftus and Palmer's study?

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Answer

smashed and hit

Show question

Question

What were the participants' answers to the speed question in Loftus and Palmer's study?

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Answer

Participants who were asked the question with the verb "smashed" recalled a higher speed of the cars (average 40.8 mph) than those asked with the word "hit" (average 34 mph).

Show question

Question

Was there broken glass in the film of the car crash that Loftus and Palmer showed to their participants?

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Answer

no

Show question

Question

What did Loftus and Palmer find when they asked whether or not there was broken glass in the film of the car crash?

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Answer

Incorrect recall of broken glass was reported by:

  • 12% of the control group (who were not asked the speed question at all).
  • 14% of the ‘hit’ group.
  • 32% of the ‘smashed’ group.

Show question

Question

Why was Bartlett’s research unscientific?

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Answer

Bartlett didn’t apply many experimental controls. He asked participants to retell the story whenever it was convenient for them and did not set the same time frame for all participants. In addition, there was no scoring system. Bartlett measured the changes made to the story subjectively, in his opinion.

Show question

Question

What problem did Bartlett’s research have because of the story is unusual?

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Answer

Because asking Cambridge University students to recall a Native American ghost story is unusual, Bartlett’s research was unrealistic and lacked ecological validity.

Show question

Question

Why has the reconstructive theory been criticised as a cognitive theory?

Show answer

Answer

It does not explain how we reconstruct memories, unlike other cognitive theories that explain the processes involved. Other approaches mention specific processes and brain parts where they occur (using lesion and brain scan studies). We do not know how schemas are formed, how they alter memories, where they are located, etc.

Show question

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