Predictable stories make our memories unreliable, study

People tend to extend the bounds of complex unfolding events by recalling inferred details about their endings.

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Memories can contain systematic biases and are not accurate records of the past. Our knowledge of the usual course of events in a particular circumstance frequently contributes to memory distortions. It is still being determined whether the memory of past events is influenced by the understanding that those occurrences often follow a predictable structure.

Neuroscientists from the University of Sussex suggest that human memories are unreliable because we like stories with predictable endings. The researchers discovered that the tendency to create coherent narratives with a defined beginning, middle, and end might cause us to misremember the result of everyday incidents and even ‘remember’ events that never had a place.

For this study, scientists used video clips of everyday situations to test how interrupting events at unexpected times affects the memory of how those events ended. They used 24 videos for 351 participants over five different experiments.

The ‘end’ of each video scenario was missing when participants watched a selection of video clips depicting routine human activity. They were asked to recall what happened immediately after watching the tapes or a week later. According to the study’s findings, 42.5% of the time, participants misremembered a clip’s ending a week later.

The researchers discovered that participants frequently recorded similar kinds of false memories. Participants watched a video of a baseball game where the action was cut off just as the ball was heading in the direction of the hitter. After a week, almost 20% of participants regularly reported seeing the batter hit the ball; some even went so far as to say he hit a home run, sending the crowd into a frenzy, despite never having witnessed this.

Contrarily, participants’ memories remained largely intact when video clips had predicted what happens, such as witnessing the batter hit the ball at the end of the clip, creating false memories for only 8.2% of these movies.

By giving participants videos with a whole story and then, after it had ended, the beginning of a new scenario as well, the researchers further examined the tendency of humans to remember complete storylines. They discovered that a sizable portion of the participants (66%) completely forgot the new scene, indicating that they had narrowed their memories to concentrate on the recently concluded event.

Chris Bird, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and co-director of Sussex Neuroscience, says, “We were surprised by how often people would fill in the missing endings to the videos they had watched when asked to remember them later. This resulted in memories containing several details of things that were never actually seen.”

“Rather than expose faults in how our memory works, our findings reveal a memory system adapted to our world. We create memories that are coherent and logical ‘best guesses’ about our experiences. However, there are situations when the criminal justice system relies on eyewitness accounts of events when accurate memories are critical.”

Dominika Varga, Ph.D. student at the University of Sussex School of Psychology, who worked with Professor Bird and Dr. Petar Raykov on the research, says:

“Memories aren’t like objective video recordings of the past, but heavily influenced by what we already know and believe about the world. By being aware of these biases, we can be more cautious when relying solely on memories for important decisions and think carefully about information before accepting it as the absolute truth.”

Scientists are now planning to conduct this study on people of older ages. This will help them investigate if memory distortions vary with age to help them design tailored memory interventions for different age groups.

Journal Reference:

  1. Raykov, P. P., Varga, D., & Bird, C. M. (2023). False memories for ending of events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. DOI: 10.1037/xge0001462
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