The Constructive Nature of Memory

Instructor: David Whitsett

David has taught computer applications, computer fundamentals, computer networking, and marketing at the college level. He has a MBA in marketing.

When we remember an event, is the memory an exact reproduction or is it altered by our current frame of reference? In this lesson, we'll discuss the constructive nature of memory and how the way we process information impacts decision making.

If Memory Serves Me

When you remember a distant event, is the memory colored by the things you've since experienced? Research has shown that memories are not always a literal reproduction of actual events. Think about the differences in courtroom testimony between two witnesses: what is the reality? The concept of constructive memory holds that we use a variety of information (perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, etc.) to fill in gaps, and that the accuracy of our memory may be altered.

Distortions of memory through various means can also alter our recollection of events. The misinformation effect says that we can use newly acquired information (valid or not) to reconstruct our memory, such as a police detective's leading questions influencing an eyewitness's testimony.

Hindsight bias is the tendency to look at the past through our present perceptions: ''He was probably cheating back then too, we just didn't know it.'' There's also the overconfidence effect where people give themselves credit for a better memory than they actually have.

If a policeman remembers something different than you, would you question yourself?

Recall And Decision Making

How we remember events can influence our present ability to generalize and make abstractions. Studies have shown there is an overlap between our brains processes for remembering events and imagining future ones. This means that sometimes memories and imagination can be confused. Imagination inflation speaks to how imagining an event can lead to a false memory of its occurrence.

Our episodic memories (memories of events) are used to make informed decisions and relied on in times of risk. So if those memories of events are colored or distorted in some way, it can directly affect the decisions we make today. Studies have also shown that simulating future events in our minds (call it visualization) can increase prospective memory, which is the probability of carrying out intended actions in the future.

So if visualization (a specific anticipated situation) leads to a higher probability of carrying out a future action, it stands to reason it would also benefit goal setting (science calls it implementation intentions). In less lofty terms, imagining success in specific terms has real benefits.

Studies show goal setting and visualization lead to better outcomes
Goal setting

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