In a recent survey of the U.S. population, researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris assessed common beliefs about memory. They found that common beliefs are often incongruent with scientific findings. Recently I had an opportunity to ask Simons about some of the implications of the survey.
What motivated this survey on understanding memory?
Our goal in conducting the study was to supplement the research we had done for our book, The Invisible Gorilla. The book focuses on everyday illusions, cases in which people’s intuitive beliefs about how the mind works are faulty. In writing the book, we realized that nobody had ever conducted a national survey to measure how pervasive those beliefs are. Our PLoS One paper reports the results from a subset of the items in the survey, those most related to memory. We chose our items by drawing from a number of smaller-scale surveys that asked about the same sorts of principles, so we had good reason to suspect that these items would reveal a sizable discrepancy between public beliefs and the established science.
Many beliefs about memory run counter to scientific findings. What are some of the key factors contributing to this misunderstanding?
I think illusions like this one, and the other ones we discuss in The Invisible Gorilla, are pervasive because they are based on our daily experiences. We rarely have the experience of having our beliefs countered. That’s one reason why the gorilla video makes such an effective demonstration — people are forced to confront a mistaken belief about what they will and won’t notice. For memory, we experience the vividness of our memories. We recall them fluently and with ease. And, with that feeling of fluency comes an unjustified sense of certainty. They feel right. And, we rarely encounter documentary evidence that our memories are wrong. If you think you know exactly where you were and what you were doing when you first heard about the attacks on 9/11, you will likely have little reason to doubt the accuracy of your memory. It’s only those rare cases when someone shows you the gorilla that you are forced to confront your own errors. That rarely happens in our daily life, so we have no reason to distrust our memories.
It seems that understanding the science of memory should be emphasized in jury trials. How would you suggest jurors be made aware of the fallibility of memory, particularly the implications regarding eyewitness testimony?
A good first step would be to allow testimony by memory experts in cases for which the evidence hinges on the memories of eyewitnesses. What this study shows is that jurors are likely to hold mistaken beliefs about the accuracy and completeness of memory and to trust confident witnesses more than they should. Expert testimony is sometimes disallowed on the grounds that what the experts have to say is just common sense. This survey provides some direct evidence against that assumption.
What are the broad implications of the findings from this line of research?
I think the broadest implication is the same one that we emphasize in The Invisible Gorilla — we think we know how our own minds work, but our intuitions about how we think, reason, see, and remember are often misguided. And, those mistaken intuitions have important implications for everything from law to driving to business.
Learn more about The Invisible Gorilla and the illusions of memory on the authors’ website.
Photo by Jacob Boetter, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.