The Cognitive Psychology Behind the movie 21 Jump Street

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Based on the 1987 television show, 21 Jump Street follows the journey of Schmidt(Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), two amateur cops who must redeem themselves and prove worthy of being legitimate police officers. After failing to arrest members of the local gang, the One Percenters, during their work in park patrol, Schmidt and Jenko are assigned to work in the specialized undercover division known as 21 Jump Street, and must pose as high school students in order to infiltrate a drug dealer. This comedy relates in many ways to cognitive psychology, as many aspects of the film exemplify important topics such as the seven sins of memory, types of memories, and problem-solving strategies.

Schacter termed the various common failures of memory as the “seven sins” (Kellogg, 2007). The first sin is known as transience, referring to the deterioration of a specific memory over time. A great example of this from the film is when Jenko has a difficult time memorizing the wording of the Miranda rights. Even though he successfully graduated from the police academy, he still is not able to recall the precise wording, as this information failed to be transferred into long-term memory. When Schmidt and Jenko make their first arrest, the dynamic duo is beyond overjoyed, that they forget to read the perpetrator his Miranda Rights. The two are called into questioning by the chief of police, who tests Jenko on the spot. Jenko experienced transience, as he was unable to remember the information which he partially encoded. As a result, the suspect had to be released, as his rights were never presented to him. The second sin, absent-mindedness, refers to breakdowns in attention which prevent events from being encoded into short-term memories. Jenko and Schmidt, as a result of the failed arrest, are assigned to go undercover in the specialty division on 21 Jump Street. The duo is assigned to stop a new synthetic drug known as H.F.S, by finding the supplier. As part of their training, the officers are shown a video of a student who overdosed on H.F.S. The drug causes its users to cycle through various phases. The drug causes people to lose focus and forget things. Based on its ability to cause encoding failure, the drug induces the sin of absent-mindedness.

Blocking, the third sin, refers to the inability to retrieve information from long-term memory. The tip of the tongue phenomenon is caused by blocking, as information is temporarily inaccessible. Schmidt and Jenko take on the identities of Brad and Doug McQuaid, two brothers who attend the high school where the drug is being synthesized. As part of their mission, they had to memorize their identities and blend amongst the student body. On the first day of school, the high school principal asks Jenko and Schmidt who’s Doug and who’s Brad. Even though he had his name on the tip of his tongue, Jenko accidentally switches their identities. Another example of blocking is when Schmidt freezes and forgets how to handle and shoot his gun. In his case, the memory indicating how to shoot his weapon is unavailable and cannot be accessed, leading to his halting.

Misattribution is a failure of source-memory, during which we remember the content but forget the actual source of the information, attributing it to some other source. This can take various forms, in things such as dreams or hallucinations. Although this was not specifically stated in the movie, one could assume that the drug may cause misattribution of memories in its users, as they may confuse the hallucination experienced during their high to have occurred in real life. Suggestibility is the sin common in eyewitness testimonies, during which we have a tendency to become confused with our memories due to comments made by others about what really happened. Like misattribution, this sin was not outlined in the film, but a hypothetical example of this could have occurred in the scene during which Jenko and Schmidt made their very first...
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