Discuss the Reliability of One Cognitive Process Memory is an example of a cognitive process, in other words it is a process by which knowledge is gained. This essay will attempt to explain the internal processes which are involved in memory and try to determine whether or not our memories as mental process of knowing, reasoning and judging can be considered reliable sources of information. First of all, memory is defined as the process of retaining and recalling past events or experiences. Memory is not however, like a “tape recorder” and cannot provide an exact replica of what happened, but rather a “reconstruction” of it.
Some aspects of memory recall are better described as ‘rumours’- memories will never return to their original clarity; faces can be switched, names deleted and words changed. Some of the reasons for memory’s slips and ambiguities have been compiled by Professor Daniel Schacter’s “seven sins of memory” these are: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence. These ‘sins’ show the fragility of our short and long-term memory stores and how easily things can be forgotten if, for example: left over time, went unacknowledged, or followed some emotional or traumatic event.
One of the reasons for inaccuracies or distortions in memory recall is that our memories are influenced by schemas. Schemas effectively fill in the blanks of our memories by inserting our previous knowledge or understanding of the world to complete or reconstruct memories into coherent episodes. This can be shown in Bartlett’s “War of the Ghosts” study which explains the reconstructive nature of memory and how our information processing is schema driven. In the study, Bartlett illustrated how, as people tried to make sense of something they constructed memories based on what they already knew.
This is because people’s long-term memories help them to make sense of the world around them; it was described by Bartlett as “effort after meaning”. Pre-stored schemas prevent people from simply remembering information as they determine what to remember and what to discount. The findings from the study showed that when recounting the story, the participants unconsciously left out or changed some key elements in order for them to conform to their schemas. For example, the wound to the spirit was replaced with a flesh wound which fitted better with their schemas for battle injuries.
Bartlett also showed how schema processes can be linked to culture as well as context, for example, research showed that people from Western cultures found the story more difficult to reproduce because of its unfamiliar content and style. Also, because they couldn’t really relate to the story or put it into the context of a real-life event, they remembered less than, say, a person from an Indian culture may have. Bartlett’s study is a good example of the unreliability of memory as we are unconscious of how and why our schemas work.
They can easily disregard or alter aspects of our recall memories which may be important or essential to a piece of information. However, memories can be accurate and reliable too; the capacity we have to remember certain things from many years ago, such as a song we learnt as a child. Memories can inform, guide and educate us about ourselves and our emotions. Unfortunately there is no correlation between believing that memory is accurate and the memory’s accuracy. We tend to remember the overall meaning of something, yet some reconstructing of the information happens when retrieving it.
There are, however, benefits to our memory’s limitations. In the words of William James, “If we remembered everything we should on most occasions be as ill of as if we remembered nothing. ” This is the idea that forgetting can help you learn. For example, imagine a brain which is able to remember and recall everything; when trying to remember something simple like where you put your keys it would have to sift through all the memories of places where you had previously put the keys in order to remember the most recent one. There would need to be some system of discounting old, irrelevant information, which we have- we call it ‘forgetting’.
This helps us to remember recent events and allows us to be left with the information that is most important to our daily survival. Researchers have found that memories are not fixed and can be lost, changed or even created. Our memories can also be manipulated by the use of leading questions and emotive language. Loftus and Palmer’s study is an excellent example of this. The aim of the experiment was to test their hypothesis that: the language used in eyewitness testimony can alter memory. In the study, 45 students were shown footage of a car accident and than asked to answer questions about it.
There were five conditions and in each there was one critical question which was worded slightly differently. The participants were asked to estimate the speed of the cars before they smashed/collided/bumped/hit/contacted each other. The change to the verb in the critical question affected the participants’ estimations of the speed. Those with the more emotive verbs such as “smashed” or “collided”, gave a higher estimation of the speed as these words worked as demand characteristics, influencing the nature of the response given.
A second part to this study shows how when recalling something, it is possible to create “false memories”. In this case, misleading questions were asked, for example “did you see any broken glass? ” Those who were in the “smashed” condition were more likely to answer yes. Therefore, the leading question which made them remember the vehicles going faster also encouraged them to remember seeing non-existent broken glass. These false details caused their memories to be reconstructed to fit in with their schemas for a car accident.
This confabulation has important implications for the questions used in police interviewing of eyewitnesses as memories can be significantly influenced by a trusted person. However, this experiment lacks ecological validity and mundane realism as the situation would not have had the same emotional impact as witnessing a real-life accident. This leads on to the idea that memories can be affected by emotion. Emotion-driven false memories could directly impact court cases as distorted memories may result in an innocent person being accused of a crime they did not commit.
Pleasant emotions are often better remembered than unpleasant ones; as well as this, positive memories are found to contain more contextual details than negative ones, making them easier to recall (memory and learning depend heavily on context). However, strong emotion can impair memory for less emotional events and information experienced simultaneously. For example, a bank robber telling everyone to get on the floor, the people present may only remember the fear they experienced and not useful information such as what the robber looked like. The working memory has many limitations and constraints to its capacity.
The Multi-Store Model of Memory designed by Atkinson and Shiffrin, describes how the short-term memory has a very restricted capacity; it is estimated to hold only around 5-9 items which remain there for around 30 seconds. This makes it hard for us to remember, for example, a list of 20 words after seeing it for 30 seconds. Despite its limitations, our short-term memory is very important for our survival; regarding the case of Clive Wearing- the man with no short-term memory (a rare case of total amnesia) who is unable to create new memories and can remember little of his life before 1985.
He is effectively living in a moment-to-moment consciousness and spends every few minutes, ‘restarting’ his consciousness once the time span of his short term memory elapses. Being unable to create new memories would mean we are unable to live independently as we would in theory, not be able to communicate without constant repetition, live independently or be able to recognise people we have just been introduced to. The Working Model of Memory shows how we are able to multitask as our attention is divided into different areas or tools: the Phonological Loop, Episodic Buffer and Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad.
An example of this is being able to walk from school to home whilst listening to music. This requires us to use the Central Executive to direct our attention between the Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad and Phonological Loop. Memory can easily be directed from simple tasks by distractions, such as flashing lights or movement of the eyes, Sperling showed this in his experiment of memory performance. He showed that the brain is unable to ignore these distractions, making simple tasks become much harder to perform.
He confirmed that there is a bipartite model of memory, as a unitary working memory structure is too simplistic to fully explain the workings of our memories. In conclusion, it can be said that memory is not as reliable as we might think it is. It has a subjective nature and is both impressionable and unreliable with only a limited capacity. Many factors can easily affect our ability to recall information correctly, such as stress, the passage of time and the power of suggestion.
Psychologists have conducted studies to show the unreliability and internal workings of the brain and how easily it can be tricked. It is hard for us to change our instinctive desire to trust in our memories, and to realise that we in fact have very little control over what we remember and how we remember it. Despite these uncontrollable facts, our memories can still function but should not always be relied upon to provide accurate and trustworthy information.
Despite this, it is often said that a person is the sum of their memories. We have more control over our memories than we might imagine; it is possible to improve retention of memories by using different contexts, switching between tasks and strenuously reconstructing them. Our long-term memories are said to have an infinite capacity which allow us to store all our memories; however, it becomes harder to access them without rehearsal. It can be disconcerting how our memory can deceive us when we are so sure of its accuracy.
With the example of eyewitness testimonies, people may be so convinced of their choice of suspect because their memories are so weighed with emotion. As Einstein said, “Memory is deceptive because it is coloured by today’s events”. Because we are constantly being bombarded with information which is stored in our brains, we are never able to look at a memory the same way again as our perception of it will have changed. So, memory as a cognitive process can be considered to be unreliable and misleading, yet it is necessary for our everyday lives as without it we would be lost.