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What People Believe about How Memory Works

An interesting study on the prevalence of mistaken intuitions about memory.

Do people think that memory works like a video camera? Do they believe that memories are immutable once they are formed? Answers to questions like these have important ramifications for psychologists…

People often dismiss behavioral science research as merely recapitulating common sense, but many important psychological findings are counterintuitive. Some of the most striking discrepancies between popular intuitions and established science come from the study of memory. When people recall an emotionally charged event, they believe that their vivid memories are precise and accurate, largely because they rarely encounter evidence for distortions in their own memories. The surprise people express when they first realize how easily they can miss changes in their environment or when they fail to notice when a person in a gorilla suit unexpectedly appears in a video reflects incorrect underlying beliefs about the completeness of visual encoding, the richness of visual representations, and the exhaustiveness of visual awareness.

Each of the beliefs documented in this survey runs counter to expert scientific consensus and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that memory works. In a sense, the results of this survey are disappointing: Many of the ideas we tested refer to scientific findings that have been established for decades. This discrepancy between science and popular beliefs confirms the danger of relying on intuition or common sense when evaluating claims about psychology and the mind. Accordingly, scientists should more vigorously communicate established and uncontroversial results (alongside new and surprising findings) in a way that leads to broader public understanding. Teachers should also be cognizant that many of their students come to the classroom with basic misconceptions about psychology.

Source: What People Believe about How Memory Works: A Representative Survey of the U.S. Population