We rely on memories to function throughout our daily lives. We need to remember where we left the car keys, our list of objectives for the work week and to catch up with that friend for coffee. However, our memories are also integral to who we are. We remember what happened in our childhood and younger years. In turn, these events help us to form an identity of who we are today. But sometimes these memories fail us, in a strange phenomenon known as memory distortion.
You may vividly remember taking your keys out of the car, carrying them into your house and then hanging them up on the key-rack, only to later realise that you didn’t even take them out of the car!
So, what’s going on here? Memories aren’t factual records of an event. This is because our memories often fall victim to our own biases and expectations. After an event occurs, we shape and mould the memory of the event to fit it with our own concepts and ideas. In fact, over time our memory may become increasingly distorted. This is because you are not recalling the actual memory anymore, you are recalling the distorted memory.
Another way in which memories can be distorted is through leading questions. In one experiment, participants were shown a video of a car crash. They were then questioned about what they had seen. The researchers used different verbs to describe the severity of the collision and asked the participants if they had seen any broken glass in the video. When the researchers used more violent verbs, the participants recalled that there had been broken glass. This suggested that the way in which questions were asked influenced the participants memory of the event.
Experiments have even shown that people can be led to recall entire events that never actually happened. In one of the most famous studies, a man was led to “remember” an event in which he was lost in a shopping mall as a child. The man then recalled being found by an elderly man who helped him find his family.
It might all sound a little scary, but memory distortion occurs regularly and usually has little impact on our lives. It is particularly common with life-events or holidays, which are often viewed through ‘rose-tinted glasses’. In these cases, we usually omit the less pleasant details, such as delayed flights or bad weather. We are then left with a less accurate (although much more appealing) memory.
Written by Shane MacSweeney