How people recall memories

In 1932 British psychologist Frederick Bartlet put forward a theory of how people organise and recall memory. His idea was that memory is not like a video recorder that can be played back, but that in fact there are a number of factors that lead to distortion and reconstruction of information. His theory is known as reconstructive memory and his ideas are still in use in current psychological research, such as eyewitness testimony, false memory syndrome, and even in the field of artificial intelligence This essay will explain Bartlett’s theory, its strengths and weaknesses, its implications in the understanding of how the mind organises, stores and recalls information, and how Bartlett’s ideas have been incorporated and expanded.

Bartlett asserted that people’s recall of events is often inaccurate as reconstruction and distortion of information takes place, internally within the mind. The initial stimulus is taken in but as one can only give a certain amount of attention to a stimulus; previous experience, and knowledge, which he referred to as schemas, are used to construct a fuller picture internally. For example, if one was walking down a dark alley one might feel on edge, one suddenly notices a person approaching. An existing schema for this situation would exist and will probably result in the construction of a sinister character approaching, despite having no previous knowledge of the person. A schema is organised previous knowledge, an internal representation of how one perceives the world. Bartlett considered schemas to be “maps or structures of knowledge stored in long-term memory.” (May 07th 2008) www.wik.ed.uiuc.edu/index.php/Schemas

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In 1932 Bartlett composed a short fable which he named ‘war of the ghosts’. The fable was an old Native American folk story which would have been unfamiliar to the western participants. Generally it presented as a logical representation of events but within it was held more subtly illogical or irrational content. The story was recited to the participants who were asked to recall it after twenty hours, and again at varying intervals afterwards. He discovered that most people found it extremely difficult to recall the story exactly, even when the fable was read repeatedly. Bartlet hypothesised that, elements of the story which failed to fit into the schemata of the participant were omitted from their recollection, or reconstructed into more familiar forms. He remarked that people make an ‘effort after meaning’ to make sense of information; any information which did not correspond with their cultural experiences, norms, or values, or that were unfamiliar, tended to be excluded from the recollection of the participants. This resulted in a reduced, direct version of the story. Bartlett remarked that in the end, “no trace of an odd or supernatural element [was] left: we [had] a perfectly straight forward story of a fight and a death.” (2010) www.docstoc.com

Bartlett’s ideas were revolutionary and drew many responses, positive, and negative. Bartlett’s research into practical aspects of memory, with an approach that set out to study how the human memory system is applied in every day, real life situations, is seen as a fundamental strength of the reconstructive memory model. However, his experiment was criticised for the methods employed. Bartlett was stopping students on their journeys around the Cambridge campus and reciting the ‘war of the ghosts’. He would often have to wait until he met them again before he could ask them to recall their version of the story. His methods were considered as being unscientific and his work was rejected by some as a result. Bartlett’s idea of schemas was rejected as being too vague, and hard to back up with empirical evidence. Also it was argued that Bartlett’s idea of reading participants an unfamiliar story could have actually been a factor in why participants reconstructed parts of the story when they recalled it. Despite the criticism, Bartlett’s ideas regarding schema’s, and reconstructive memories, are still in use, and are still prevalent in various fields of current psychological research. The reconstructive memory model was an important breakthrough which is still very much relevant in today’s modern world. For example, a fundamental tactic employed by the police to catch and convict criminals is eye witness testimony. But how reliable is this method if memory really works as Bartlett suggested.

With the emergence of new technologies such as CCTV, in some cases, it has now been possible to explore the reliability of eye witness testimonies. One example of false eye witness testimony was the case concerning Charles Mendes, a Brazilian man who was shot by police in a case of mistaken identity after the terrorist bombings in London. Witnesses recalled Mr Mendes jumping over the ticket barrier and running away from the police before he was shot dead by the police. Later CCTV footage of the event that emerged clearly showed that this was false information and in fact Charles Mendes actually bought a ticket and only ran to avoid missing the train. Recent tests concerning reconstructive memory have also raised doubt over the reliability of eye witness testimony. In 1974 Elizabeth Loftus conducted a series of experiments to explore the reliability of eye witness testimony.

In 1974, Loftus and Palmer conducted experiments in which participants were used in an independent measures design. They were shown footage of a car crash and then separated into three groups of fifty. The first group was asked, “how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” The second group was asked the question but the word ‘hit’ was changed to ‘smashed’. The independent variable being the changed word. The third group was not asked the question; this group was used as a control group. The findings showed that the wording of the question directly affected the estimation of the cars speed. When the question was asked using the word ‘hit’, the lowest estimation was given. When the question was asked using the word ‘smashed’, participants responded with the highest estimation of the cars speed. After seven days, the participants were asked if they had seen broken glass after the accident; Loftus and Palmer found that participants who had been asked the question with the word ‘smashed’ had been consistently more likely to answer ‘yes’ (wrongly).

The findings of Loftus and Palmer’s 1974 ‘car crash’ experiments reinforced and continued the reconstructive memory theory. It has raised questions concerning the reliability of eye witness testimony; as a result of this work, juries are no longer allowed to convict a defendant on the basis of eye witness testimony alone. Their work has also led to the police revising the way they interview witnesses; to avoid misleading questions which could contaminate the original recollection of events, and in order to aid a witness to recall as much of a situation or event as possible, the police now conduct cognitive interviews. The understanding of how the mind stores and retrieves information has aided the police, whose modified interview techniques are now thought to be more successful in drawing often vital details held in the memory of witnesses. These can be used to solve crimes, help to bring dangerous criminals to justice, and are more accurate, hopefully leading to less cases of wrongful convictions due to false information or mistaken identity.

There are criticisms that can be directed towards Loftus and Palmer for their experimental methods in 1974; it has been argued that due to a lack of participant variety, the findings of the experiment cannot be viewed as universally applicable as the participants were all students. Another point that has been made is that the results could have been affected by demand characteristics; the participants could have given answers according to what they thought the researchers wanted to hear. It has also been argued that the experiments were artificial; real life situations could have different results. In a real situation there are potentially severe legal and moral consequences involved with distorted recollections of events in a court of law; this is not the case in a laboratory experiment.

These concerns have now been addressed by more recent research that has based experiments in a more realistic, every day context. This new research, such as the Open University and BBC project, appears to confirm much of what Loftus and Palmer asserted. Participants witnessed a stabbing and were taken to the station by the police for cognitive interviews. They were unaware that the situation had been staged. Dr Pike, a psychologist involved with the project echoed comments remarked by Elizabeth Loftus when he commented on the findings; speaking of how the mind is malleable, not fixed, he remarked that “it’s not like imputing data into a computer, the mind does not store facts absolutely the way they are and it does not recall them absolutely accurately either.” Winterman, D (2010) www.news.bbc.co.uk

Further research by Loftus has led to greater understanding of how the mind reacts differently in stressful situations such as at the scene of a crime taking place. It is now understood that when a weapon is involved, one’s attention tends to focus on the threatening object. As a consequence, one’s recall of peripheral details diminishes. Loftus asserted that ‘weapon anxiety’ can be responsible for one’s inability to recall the perpetrator, and or crucial details or events of a crime. It is now understood that age, and one’s emotional state, are factors to be considered concerning accurate recall. It is also widely accepted that people are more likely to misinterpret a situation, make errors, or make crucial mistakes when they are scared or in shock. Although in some instances, an extreme situation can lead to a state of heightened awareness, which can in turn lead to flashbulb memories; potentially extremely accurate detailed memories of an event or situation.

Having explored Bartlett’s theory of reconstructive memory, and later research by Loftus and Palmer that continued it, one can see that these theories have facilitated a much greater understanding of the complexities of human memory. Bartlett put forward an explanation of aspects of human memory that other models of memory do not account for. Most, if not all people would have experience with memories that are vague, or unclear. How many times have you recalled an event, only for the person next to you, who shared the experience with you, to contradict you, with a completely different account of the events? Reconstructive memory puts forward an explanation for why this can happen; of how memory does not always reflect an accurate account of an event or situation. Loftus and Palmer’s continued research into reconstructive memory has further supported the theory. Their work has had important repercussions in areas such as law and police procedure. The reconstructive memory theory continues to exert a significant influence in today’s modern world.

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(May 7th 2008) www.google.com/http://wik.ed.uiuc.edu/index.php/Schemas

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(2010) www.google.com/http://www.docstoc.com/docs/33510508/The-War-of-the-Ghosts/ (accessed 26th April 2010)

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