Our Elusive Memory

Greg Markus, from the University of Michigan, conducted a ten year study by asking close to 900 parents and their children their points of view on issues like gender equality, marijuana legislation and civil rights. A decade later he asked them the same questions again. Unanimously, they wrote down that their current beliefs were consistent with what they believed ten years prior, even when they weren’t. In other words, the subjects rewrote their history using the brush of their present-day beliefs to paint over any previous contradictions. For example, those who changed their position on marijuana legislation to a more liberal stance thought they were also more liberal ten years earlier when they actually reported they opposed the legislation at the time. This example of memory bias affected at least two thirds of the subjects tested.

An early study on memory bias was conducted by Franz von Liszt (not the composer) in 1902. He staged a fight in his classroom between two students, one of them pulls a gun, a shot is fired and then he intervenes. The best eyewitnesses got 25% of the facts wrong, the worst got 80% wrong. This study has been replicated many times over the last century, without the gunshot, with approximately the same results.

We can conclude that our memory tends to be faulty, subjective and made to fit our current belief system. Our bias is that we think what we remember now is how he viewed it then. No wonder eyewitness accounts are so inaccurate and why it seems so impossibly difficult for parents and their children and spouses to reach agreement on the accuracy of past events.

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