Author: Elizabeth F. Loftus | Rick L. Leitner | Daniel M. Bernstein | Elizabeth F. Loftus Source: The Gale Group
Subjectively, memory feels like a camera that faithfully records and replays details of our past. In fact, memory is a reconstructive process prone to systematic biases and errors—reliable at times, and unreliable at others. Memories are a combination of new and old knowledge, personal beliefs, and one's own and others' expectations. We blend these ingredients in forming a past that conforms to one's haphazardly accurate view of oneself and the world.
Reconstructing the Past
Traditionally, psychologists were interested in the temporal retention of information. Since the early 1930s, many psychologists have shifted their focus from the quantity of memory to its accuracy (Koriat, Goldsmith, and Pansky, 2000). The British psychologist Frederic C. Bartlett (1932) conducted one of the first systematic investigations of memory accuracy. He asked subjects to read a legend about Indian hunters called "The War of the Ghosts" and then to retell it to another subject who had not read it. The second subject then told the story to another subject, and so on, until ten subjects had heard it. The story involves two young Indian hunters who meet a group of men in a canoe, who, in turn, invite the hunters to join them in battle upriver. One young Indian accepts and the other declines. During battle, the young Indian is wounded and realizes that the men of the war party are ghosts. He returns home, recounts his tale, and dies the next morning. Bartlett found that subjects retained the overall gist of the story but that they also revised the story, systematically omitting and modifying details. For example, subjects omitted mystical references, such as ghosts, which are not part of Westerners' worldview; they embellished other details. In the original story, the second Indian declined to join the party because his relatives would not know his whereabouts. By the tenth retelling, one subject explained that this Indian refused because his elderly mother was dependent on him, a revision that manifests Western concepts of a son's responsibilities in general and perhaps that subject's family ties in particular. Another common change was that subjects tended to add a moral, possibly because stories in Western culture often have morals. Bartlett concluded, "Remembering … is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole mass of organized past reactions or experiences" (p. 213). Bartlett's study exemplifies how time and retelling distort the memory of stories. Another study conducted in the early 1930s using ambiguous drawings showed that what we are told that we are viewing easily distorts visual material. If people are shown two circles and a line and are told that the picture represents either glasses or dumbbells, subjects' later drawings of the original picture will assume the suggested appearance (Carmichael, Hogan, and Walter, 1932). There are many other studies that demonstrate the malleability of memory for words, stories, and pictures. For example, Henry Roediger and Kathleen McDermott (1995) altered a procedure originally developed by James Deese in which people study lists of closely related words like bed, pillow, tired, and dream. When later asked to recall studied words, subjects frequently claim that they saw other words like sleep that were not presented but are related to those that were. Subjects often assert these "false memories" with a high degree of confidence and detail (e.g., that a male as opposed to a female voice spoke the word). There is some debate about whether subjects generate the word sleep while studying the word list or later, when asked to recall the entire word list. In either case, people draw inferences—not necessarily accurate—about their present and past experiences. Yet another way to demonstrate memory's attempt at synthesis is to present subjects with successive, thematically related slides depicting common routines like going grocery shopping. One slide shows a woman putting a box of items into her shopping cart. The next slide shows several oranges on the ground. When subjects are asked later to recognize slides that had previously been shown, they mistakenly say that they saw a slide depicting the woman removing an orange from the bottom of a pile of oranges (Hannigan and Tippens-Reinitz, 2001). They make this causal inference because people naturally attempt to piece together the fragments of their past in order to make memory as coherent as possible.
100 word summary: Reconstructive Memory
Reconstructive memory recalls that is hypothesized to work by storing abstract features which are then used to construct the memory during recall. For example, it is hard to draw a complete picture of a penny even though it is something that we see all the time. This observation of memory by Bartlett says that reconstructive memory is putting the pictures of information from a memory together, but often in the wrong order, with bits missing or added. In fact, it becomes a problem when it comes to the law. In criminal cases a witness often plays an important role in providing information against the defendant. However, the eyewitness can be inaccurate because the memory was not reconstructed correctly.