Memory is believed to be an active process which selects information to encode and store ready for retrieval if needed. From encoding through to retrieval memories can be constructed and reconstructed, showing why memories are not always accurate. This essay will aim to explore and evaluate the research of memory. It will aim to provide evidence to support the theory that our memories are not always accurate, and to offset this with evidence to support otherwise. There will be key areas of research that it will explore, starting with the construction of memories and how they can be processed through our internal ‘computer system’ of encoding, storage and retrieval and the subsystems of Sensory memory, Short Term Memory (STM) and Long Term Memory (LTM). It will also look at memory pliability and how we can be led into thinking that something happened differently to how we actually witnessed it at the time. Collective memories are also a key area of this essay and to finish there will be a brief look at the affect that brain damage has on the encoding and storage of memories.
Constructing memories is something that begins with encoding information at a basic level of sensory input where the information is held just long enough for it to be processed further through the STM and into storage in the LTM, ready for retrieval when needed (Brace & Roth, 2007). Many factors can influence the accuracy of memories stored in the LTM. Craik and Lockhart (1972) had a theory that the level of processing involved at the sensory level effected the recall ability of information as it wasn’t processed deep enough for the memory to be accurate (as cited in Brace & Roth, 2007, p.119).
There are many factors that affect the construction and reconstruction of memory. Elaboration by the adding and omitting of details over the years, the fading of memory with age and also external influences, all which effect the accuracy of a memory. In contrast, Brown and Kulik (1977) found that a person’s memory can be highly accurate when recalling an event, if the event had personal relevance and a high surprise factor. For example, the World Trade Center disaster in 2001 would perhaps be better remembered by American citizens as it has a more personal relevance to them. For example; although I myself can remember where I was on the day that it happened I think this is because it was such a surprising and terrible event, but I do not remember who I was with or how I was told so my memory of this is not a fully accurate one. In support of this, Conway et al. (1994) found in their study on participants memory of the resignation of Margaret Thatcher, one year on, 86% of 215 UK resident participants were able to recall accurately compared with 29% of 154 non-UK residents participants (as cited in Brace & Roth, 2007, p.140). This shows that memories are most likely to be stored accurately if it has a more personal affect.
Collective memories are also an interesting area of research. Experiences of important past events can be shared between people to create memories, even if as an individual you don’t remember that particular event happening (Brace et al., 2007, p.142). Collective memories in families are used to express an identity or tradition and pass this on through generations (Miller, 2000. as cited in Brace & Roth, 2007) so that family history and reputation is maintained. Collective family memories are made up of stories that have been elaborated and changed through time with information added or left out to create, at times, a less than accurate memory of events. Gergen (1999, as cited in Brace & Roth, 2007) also supports the theory that collective memories are not always accurate as they can be formed to help construct and reconstruct history (Brace & Roth, 2007, p.143). Evidence of this comes from South Africa in the late twentieth century when a committee was set up to make the public aware of the happenings during the apartheid and reconstruct a collective memory in order to shape a better future for the country (Nuttall & Coetzee, 1998. As cited in Brace & Roth, 2007). It is fair to say that collective memories as a whole are not always accurate.
Memory pliability is a fascinating area of research that has enabled psychologists to understand how the human memory works and how it can easily be influenced by misinformation. A key area of research related to this surrounds the misinformation effect and the debate over what causes the memory to be influenced by facts that are given after the event. It may be that the way a question is worded effects what you remember. Evidence of this is shown in a famous study by Loftus and Palmer (1974) which supports this theory as their findings showed that memory can be manipulated by misleading questions and therefore endorsing the notion that memory is not always accurate. As mentioned earlier in this work, research by Craik et al. (1972) also supports the notion that memories are not always accurate by suggesting that if information wasn’t encoded deeply enough you may have already forgotten what you saw, so your memory is willing to accept the information being given to you because it sounds familiar or reasonable. Another valid reason could be that the information from the question is stored differently to the information from the actual event. This would also influence the accuracy of the memory as it may be easier to remember the more recent details given to you rather than the initial ones that were experienced at a sensory level, known as the primacy and recency effects (Brace et al., 2007, p.116).
Further evidence to support the theory that memory is not always accurate is taken from the findings of study by Crombag et al. (1996) which suggests that people are apt to use their own knowledge of an event through what they have seen or heard about it and then form a mental image that to them feels like a memory. Differences between memories produced by external stimuli like media or other people are not easily distinguished from those produced by first-hand experience (Brace et al., 2007, p.135).
This area of research surrounding misinformation and leading questions has proven to be very useful for the Police in interviewing witnesses after an event. Geiselman and Fisher (1984) developed a cognitive interview model using retrieval-enhancing techniques which has proven to be very helpful in aiding the police when interviewing witnesses as it enables them to extract more accurate memories without misleading the witness (Brace et al., 2007, p.126) so this suggest that memories can be accurate if retrieved in a way that they are not altered during the recall process.
Memory is a complex system that is made up of many capacities that are able to operate independently of each other (Brace & Roth, 2007, p.158). Underlying issues with the brain can effect memory and influence the accuracy of our memories, this is evident in the research by Vargha-Kardim et al. (1997, as cited in Brace & Roth, 2007). Their study suggests that even if the area of the brain responsible for Episodic memory, the LTM concerned with personal events and times or places, is damaged it is still possible for the Semantic memory, the LTM concerned with general knowledge about the world and the meaning of information, to operate well enough. Bozeat et al., (2000) also have sufficient evidence to show that this is the case in reverse (as cited in Brace & Roth, 2007). Although in theory having some memory is better than none, in real life situations the person suffering with the brain damage may find that it limits their daily life in a vast way as their memory may not be all that accurate when recalling something they need, to function routinely on a daily basis.
To conclude the evaluation of research surrounding the hypothesis that our memories are not always accurate, it is fair to suggest that there is more evidence to support this theory than not. Although our memory is a huge expanse of knowledge, much of which we can’t always recall, it is not always accurate. Memory is something that can be influenced by personal experiences, time, even the ability to take in information at a sensory level and be swayed by external sources. Information given to us days or weeks after an event may compel us to remember details that we never saw happen and lead us into elaborating our memories of that event. Our ability to recall accurate information is something that can be enhanced using specialist techniques, derived from years of research and this has a great impact on witness testimony and our legal system in that memories can in fact be accurate if retrieved efficiently and quickly enough after an event. Further research into memory is something that needs to be continued for many years to come so that psychologists and other professionals alike can understand, more deeply, the ability of our memory. Particularly the rehabilitation of memory from brain damage or Alzheimer’s. Memories are adaptable, not fixed and so they cannot always be relied upon as being accurate.
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Brace, N., Roth, I. ‘Memory: Structures, processes and skills’ in Miell, D., Pheonix, A., Thomas, K., (2007), ‘Mapping Psychology’, Oxford, Oxford University Press/Milton Keynes, The Open University.