Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Memory

Can you trust your memories? Many studies successfully implanted false childhood memories into people, and observed participants describe an event that never happened in detail! Should people go diving to improve their memory? Although this sounds very random it is in fact a real study that was conducted. Why does our memory seem to work better in unusual circumstances? And, how is it possible that people can remember experiencing something that never happened? In this article, you'll find out what factors affect the accuracy of memory.

Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Memory Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Memory

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Contents
Table of contents
    • To tackle the question of what are the factors affecting the accuracy of memory in psychology, we will start by outlining how memory works according to the reconstructive memory theory.
    • Next, we will examine how this theory explains false memories and look closely at the studies investigating this phenomenon.

    • Then, we will move on to the factors affecting the accuracy of memory and forgetting, including the influence of interference and context. Here we will look at the underwater memory study!

    • Finally, we will apply some critical thinking and discuss the strengths and criticism of research into factors affecting the accuracy of memory.

    Factors affecting the accuracy of memory, illustration of a photo album, StudySmarterOver time we tend to forget the details of our memories, freepik.com

    Factors affecting the accuracy of memory in psychology

    We memorise the events from our life automatically. It also doesn't seem effortful to reflect on our autobiographical memories. Yet, according to the reconstructive memory theory, memory is quite a complex and effortful process.

    Reconstructive memory theory

    The reconstructive memory theory proposes that remembering involves an active reconstruction of the event in our head. We can't just save memories in their entirety like a video file. Instead, we only remember the key elements of what happened, the main meaning of an event. Then, when we recall the memory, we fill the gaps and remove and add some details to create a coherent story of what happened.

    But how do we recreate stories if we don't actually remember all the elements? We can recreate detailed memories using schemas, which include all the mental frameworks we have about how the world works.

    Schemas can include:

    • General knowledge about the world (e.g., what different animals look like).

    • Knowledge from our personal experiences (e.g., dogs are dangerous or harmless).

    • Our expectations (e.g., if I go to a restaurant, I expect to be approached by a waiter).

    Usually, using schemas to fill the gaps in our memory makes it an efficient and accurate enough process. However, mixing up details with our schemas might have serious consequences in high-stakes situations, for example, when giving eyewitness testimony.

    Suppose someone asked you to remember your first day at school. In that case, you might remember the most meaningful aspects: feeling anxiety, pride or excitement, attending a ceremony or meeting your classmates. But, you may be wrong about some details such as what you were wearing or what time you woke up that day. These memories don't really change too much because it's likely that you remember the most important details.

    On the other hand, in eyewitness testimony, the little details matter. So if you don't remember what the person that committed the crime looked like or where you saw the suspect, your schemas might affect your testimony without you even realising.

    According to reconstructive memory theory, schemas might be one of the factors influencing the accuracy of memory, but is it possible to construct a memory that never happened?

    False memories

    False memories are different from just inaccurate memories. Remembering a whole event that you never experienced is a false memory. On the other hand, inaccurate memories can involve misremembering details of something that actually happened. According to research, the implantation of false autobiographical memories is not very difficult and can occur even as a result of seeing advertisements.

    Autobiographical memories are a form of long-term memories that can be divided into two subgroups; semantic memories and knowledge concerning ourselves and episodic memories of our past experiences.

    Braun, Ellis, and Loftus (2002) - Make my memory study

    Braun and colleagues investigated the effect of seeing advertisements that are designed to evoke childhood nostalgia on participants' childhood memories. The researchers recruited 107 undergraduates for their study, half of which were assigned to the experimental group and the other half to the control group. Initially, all the participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire indicating how confident they were about 20 different events that happened to them during their childhood.

    The following week, the experimental group was shown an ad for Disney that asked participants to “remember the magic” and included a detailed description of a child meeting and taking a photo with Mickey Mouse at Disney. In contrast, the control group was shown a different, unrelated ad. Researchers asked participants to vividly imagine experiencing this scenario for five minutes and think about what feelings it provoked.

    After this task, participants engaged in an unrelated distraction task, following which they were asked to complete the questionnaire about childhood experiences again. They were told it needed to be done due to some problems with processing their initial data so participants did not guess the true aims of the hypothesis.

    Researchers found that the experimental group felt much more confident about being at Disney World and meeting Mickey Mouse compared to the control group. The study suggests that advertisements can implant fake autobiographical memories.

    Factors affecting the accuracy of memory, Jungle pathway with a pink castle in the background, StudySmarterBraun, Ellis and Loftus (2002) carried out a study to identify if a Disney advertisement could affect the recall accuracy of a childhood event, freepik.com/upklyak.

    Factors affecting the accuracy of memory and forgetting

    Now let's consider what makes specific memories specifically prone to forgetting.

    Interference

    One factor that contributes to forgetting is interference. Interference occurs when multiple similar memories are connected to the same cues, making it more difficult to find the one we're looking for. So, when you try to remember your target memory, the only thing that comes to mind is another similar one.

    Proactive interference occurs when our existing memories interfere with new ones.

    You can experience proactive interference when you get a new phone number, but any time you try to remember it, the only thing that comes to your mind is your old phone number. Proactive interference can also occur when you accidentally refer to your current partner using your ex-partner's name because the two names are associated with similar cues in your brain.

    Retroactive interference is a reverse phenomenon which occurs when new memories interfere with our memory of similar old memories.

    Retroactive interference can occur when you want to tell your friend about an exciting book you read a month ago, but it gets mixed up with the plot of the book you are currently reading.

    Context

    Memories are stored in networks. Some memories are associated with different environmental or sensory cues. If we encounter a specific cue, it becomes easier to remember the whole event that the cue is associated with. In contrast, remembering becomes much harder if there's a lack of relevant cues.

    Consider the underwater memory study, Godden and Baddeley (1975) investigated whether the physical context affects memory. They had one group of participants learn a list of word pairs in water, and another learned a list on the ground. Then each group was asked to remember the words in both environments.

    Interestingly, each group performed best when the environment where they learned the words matched the environment where they were asked to recall them.

    The findings of Godden and Baddley were explained by the lack of relevant environmental cues in a new setting, a phenomenon called context-dependent forgetting.

    The findings of Godden and Baddley (1875) failed to be replicated in later years (Murre, 2021).

    State-dependent forgetting occurs when our state of mind at the time of recall doesn't match the one we were in when the information was encoded. Some early studies showed that people perform better at memory tasks when they are in the same state that they were in when they learned the tasks.

    Carter & Cassaday (1998) found that participants who memorised stimuli under the influence of a sedative antihistamine medication performed better when they were also sedated, while the participants that learned without the sedative medication performed better without it.

    Strengths and criticism of research into factors affecting the accuracy of memory

    Even though the studies and concepts we have just discussed are certainly important and influential, some argue that their findings are limited and won't always apply to real-world situations. Let's evaluate the research concerning factors that affect the accuracy of memory recall.

    • One strength of the factors influencing memory is that there is experimental support behind them. For instance, Carter and Cassaday (1998) provide evidence for state-dependent forgetting.

    • However, even though they have been extensively studied, most of the research was conducted in a laboratory, which leaves questions about its ecological validity or the extent to which they can be generalised to real-life situations.

    • On the other hand, being aware of how our memory can be influenced can have real-life applications for eyewitness testimony. Knowing that memory isn't always accurate changes how we treat eyewitness testimony and how an interview with an eyewitness is conducted to prevent influencing the witness.

    Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Memory - Key takeaways

    • The reconstructive memory theory proposes that remembering is an active process influenced by our schemas, which involves reconstructing the event.
    • External suggestions can affect our memory and create false memories. This was shown in the study of Braun et al. (2002), which found that nostalgic advertisements can implant fake autobiographical memories.
    • One factor that contributes to forgetting is interference. Interference occurs when one memory interferes with another similar one.
      • Proactive interference occurs when our existing memories interfere with new ones.
      • Retroactive interference is a reverse phenomenon which occurs when new memories interfere with our memory of similar old memories.
    • Contextual cues can help activate different details connected to a memory. When environmental or sensory cues are absent, there can be state-dependent forgetting and context-dependent forgetting.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Memory

    What are 3 factors that can lead to mistakes in memory? 

    • Schemas
    • Interference
    • Context

    How can context affect the accuracy of memory? 

    Contextual cues can help activate different details connected to a memory.

    What are the factors affecting forgetting? 

    The factors affecting forgetting include interference and context.

    Why is memory inaccurate? 

    Memories are sometimes inaccurate because we may forget specific details. Sometimes our brain uses our schema to fill in the gaps, which are not always accurate representations of what was learned. 

    How do emotions affect your memory? 

    Emotions contribute to state-dependent forgetting. According to the theory, it is easier to remember an event when we are in the same emotional state that we were in when it happened.

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