“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist,” once said French author Guy de Maupassant. Whether it’s short-term memory allowing us to perform simple calculations on the fly, long-term memory which can store larger quantities of information, sometimes for a whole life span, or sensory memory which lets us retain impressions of sensory information after the original stimulus has ceased — our memory is a vital part of what makes us human.
However, it’s far from perfect. “Memory, for all that it does for us every day, for all the feats that can sometimes amaze us, can also be a troublemaker,” explains Daniel Schacter, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, in his book The Seven Sins of Memory. What are these “sins” exactly, and how can we learn to identify them?
Sins of omission and sins of commission
There are seven major categories of memory quirks being investigated by psychologists. Daniel Schacter categorizes the first three as “sins of omission” that involve forgetting, and the last four as “sins of commission” that involve distorted recollection. As with many cognitive biases and faulty mental models, the first step is often awareness. While you read through the list, try to think of times your memory fell prey to each of these sins.
This sin is the general deterioration of memory over time. For instance, a study looked at how well undergraduates remembered how they found out about the O. J. Simpson trial verdict immediately after, 15 months, and 32 months later. After three years, fewer than 30% remembered accurately, and nearly 50% had major errors in their recollection. A degree of decreasing accessibility is perfectly normal, especially with aging, but dommage in certain areas of the brain such as the hippocampus or the temporal lobe and cause acute forms of transience.
Do you sometimes forget where you put your glasses or your keys? That’s the absent-mindedness sin playing tricks on you — when we have lapses of attention. The problem can arise both at the encoding stage (when a memory is formed), and at the retrieval stage (when a memory is accessed). As a result, we forget what we were just planning on doing, or where we left an object.
We have all experienced the tip-of-the-tongue syndrome, also called lethologica. This temporary inaccessibility of stored information is the third sin of memory. It is thought that blocking happens when the brain tries to retrieve information, but another memory interferes with it. We feel like retrieval is imminent (“It’s on the tip of my tongue!”) but the memory is temporarily blocked.
“Memory is also characterized by sins of commission: Situations in which some form of memory is present, but is misattributed to an incorrect time, place, or person,” writes Daniel Schacter. Misattribution is the correct recollection of information, combined with the incorrect recollection of the source of that information. People may recall the wrong source, or not remember the source at all, thinking they come up with an idea out of their own imagination. They may even falsely recall events that never happened.
While misattribution happens spontaneously, our memory is also vulnerable to incorporation of misinformation due to leading questions or active deception from other people. Suggestibility is an important area of research within legal systems, as it can lead to false memories and false confessions. Indeed, Daniel Schacter points out: “Studies clearly indicate that suggestions made at the time of memory retrieval can lead to the creation of false memories of autobiographical episodes.”
Our memory can be retrospectively distorted by our current knowledge, beliefs, and feelings. For instance, memories encoded with a certain amount of emotion are more easily recalled if we currently feel a similar emotion. There are many memory biases that are hard to control, such as the hindsight bias or the rosy retrospection bias.
Sometimes, we’d rather forget, but our brain is not letting go of the memory. Persistence causes the unwanted recall of information that feels disturbing, such as a traumatic experience, or even just a past mistake or embarrassing moment. This sin of memory can lead to the development of chronic fears and phobias.
The seven penances of memory
The seven “sins” of memory should not necessarily be seen as failures, but rather as byproducts of well-working mechanisms supporting our memory processes. Essentially, the brain mechanisms that account for memory’s sins also account for its strengths.
“We shouldn’t think of these fundamentally as flaws in the architecture of memory,” Daniel Schacter explains, “but rather as costs we pay for benefits in memory that make it work as well as it does most of the time.” However, some may cause unintended consequences. Luckily for us, there are ways to manage the most negative aspects of the seven sins of memory.
American soldier, engineer, and inventor Scott Stanley Haraburda attended a science conference in Florida in 2004, where he heard Daniel Schacter present the seven sins of memory. After conducting experiments to validate the list of sins, Scott Stanley Haraburda developed a list of actions to help us manage them better, which he called the seven “penances” of memory:
- Obtain information quickly after an event, when it is fresh in people’s minds.
- Use a prioritized task list.
- Take notes from important events, including meeting minutes.
- Record important events and milestones daily.
- Use neutrally worded questions when soliciting information.
- Understand the basis or perspective of the person providing the information.
- Understand and recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
As with most memory biases, it is unfortunately impossible to completely get rid of them. But we can apply these simple strategies to at least mitigate some of their most harmful effects. Remember to go through the list of seven sins of memory and to write down an example from your own experience for each of them. Rooting each sin with a concrete example will make you more aware of them next time you experience one of those sins.