Why You Can’t Believe Anything You Remember

Our memory sucks. Or rather, our brain is trying to keep us safe and oblivious. You may believe that you have a decent memory, that you remember events from the past, that you remember exactly how you felt, and what you said almost verbatim. And you are mistaken. It might be difficult to accept, but the chances are good that you are misremembering many things from your past.

The culprits of your faulty memory, whether you want to admit you have one or not, are cognitive biases. There are many cognitive biases related to our memory. Some enhance our ability to recall the past, and most impair it. If you can’t remember the memory of the past event, it is not that bad. I’m not going to talk about the memories you don’t have. You can certainly train your memory to be better, but I don’t consider not remembering things a big problem. Especially in today’s technology-rich environment when you have a vast amount of information at your fingertips.

Much more problematic is the case when you recall the memory, but some cognitive bias alters the content of that memory. You believe you remember things exactly as they happened, and the various biases make sure that the memory is widely different from what really happened.

Because you are unaware that this is going on, you are ready to swear that you are right, you are willing to argue your point, you are willing to fight for it. The person sitting opposite to you may have a very different recollection of the past event. So two of you fight each believing that his or her memory is the right one.

By understanding what some of the cognitive biases related to memory are, you can partially mitigate them. You will never be able to remove them altogether, but just the knowledge that they exist and that your memory is not as infallible as you may believe should temper your willingness to fight and make a fool of yourself.

Choice-supportive bias – sometimes called post-purchase rationalization is when we clearly remember the chosen option to be better than the rejected one. Once we make a choice, our brain immediately jumps into overdrive to justify why that decision was better than the other one. Even though we may have hesitated initially, with time, we start remembering that it was, of course, the best option, and we made the right choice. No question. Even if we find some faults with our chosen option, we will still rationalize it remembering that the rejected option was even worse. We unconsciously amplify or make up its perceived faults. When the choice is made, we remember mostly the positive aspects of our chosen option and the negative aspects of the rejected one.

Confirmation bias – without realizing it, we tend to search for information that supports our beliefs. The same goes for memory. We tend to remember things that support what we believe in, and we forget those things that would conflict with our belief system. Over time we become convinced that everything we ever heard or seen confirms what we think. We start believing that no one ever told us anything that would contradict our truth. This bias can be explained by wishful thinking, considering the costs of being wrong and a limited capacity to process information. Even when faced with contrary information, we tend to discard it and get even more entrenched in our beliefs. We do our best to remove the contradictory information from our memory. They are fake news.

Conservatism bias – we tend to remember frequencies of occurrence less extreme than they are. We remember high-frequency things to happen less often, and low-frequency things to happen more often. Memories tend to be less extreme than reality. Curiously enough, the opposite effect when people overestimate high-frequency occurrences and underestimate low-frequency occurrences was also documented. In any case, you can’t believe your memory of how often events occur.

Consistency bias – we remember past through the eyes of today. We incorrectly remember that our past attitudes and behaviors were close to the attitudes and behaviors we exhibit today. It is still us. We were always the way we are today. This bias comes into play frequently as it allows us to retain some sense of who we are and that our attitude and beliefs are stable over time. They are not. We change or beliefs all the time. But luckily for us, we don’t remember it.

Egocentric bias – we tend to recall the past in a way that puts us in a positive light. We remember being better, more successful, more ethical, more everything positive than we really were. For example, we remember being better in school than we were, being more popular than we were, or catching a bigger frog than we really caught. Egocentric bias also makes us remember contributing to a common project more than other people had.

Hindsight bias – we tend to remember past events as being more predictable than they were. When something happens, we distinctly remember that we knew a long time ago that it is going to happen. In reality, we didn’t. Unfortunately, because we believe that we were correct in the past, we may be more overconfident when it comes to predicting the future. Luckily, the more comprehensive our knowledge is in foresight, the smaller is our hindsight bias. Unfortunately, the less expertise in the particular topic we have, the more likely we are to suffer from this bias.

Illusion-of-truth effect – we tend to identify a statement as accurate if we have heard it already in the past, regardless of whether we consciously remember hearing it. We believe a familiar statement more readily than an unfamiliar one. In our minds, a repeated lie becomes the truth. This effect even applies to situations when we knew the real truth and were able to articulate it clearly. Knowledge of the facts doesn’t prevent us from succumbing to the illusion-of-truth effect, and we still believe the made-up lies.

Leveling and sharpening – over time, we tend to introduce memory distortions by leveling – loss of details, and often at the same time by sharpening – giving greater importance to other details. For example, we don’t remember the names of the kids in the first grade or even how many there were, but we distinctly remember that one used to wear a red hat. Funnily, there may not even be a kid with the red hat in the first place, and our memory just made that up.

Misattribution of memory – we tend to misidentify the source of our memories. It can be either in the form of source confusion, false memories, or cryptomnesia. Source confusion happens when we believe we saw something, but in reality, we only heard someone talk about it. For example, we may walk down the street, and I may tell you that I just saw a rat. When you, later on, talk to friends you say that as we walked the street, you saw a rat. False memories often occur after traumatic experiences and can be created by leading questions. Cryptomnesia happens when we believe that we just had a novel idea. We misremember that the idea came from someone else in our past interaction. It is often a source of plagiarism, as we firmly believe that what we created is 100% from our minds.

Misinformation effect – it is a combination of two problems – suggestibility and misattribution. We tend to recall a wrong memory of the original event if there was later on a similar event or erroneous description of the original event. The researchers tested this effect by showing participants of the study a picture with a car in front of a stop sign. Then they let them read a description of the picture. However, for some participants, the description said the car stopped at the yield sign. Then the researchers asked what the participants saw in the first place. Many of those who read the misinformed text clearly remembered that the car in the picture stopped at the yield sign.

Peak-end rule – we tend to remember the peak of the events, both pleasant and unpleasant, rather than how most of the event was. We are also more likely to have the memory heavily influenced by how the event ended. We don’t remember averages. For example, you may have a great week enjoying a beach vacation, but all you will remember in time is the fact that you had one awful dinner and that the flight back from vacation was delayed. This effect often happens in medical procedures and other unpleasant situations when we don’t remember how long the activity took but rather how painful it was at its peak or final moments. We are then willing to repeat a procedure that in aggregate took longer and caused more pain, but didn’t have the one big peak super painful moment we remembered in the other procedure.

Placement bias – we tend to remember being better than others at tasks we believe we are above average, and we remember to be worse than others at jobs at which we think we are worse than others. For example, most of us may remember being one of the best drivers at driving school even when, statistically speaking, half of us was worse than the average. Many people also remember not being particularly good at math, saying they don’t have a knack for math. Though in reality, they might be doing pretty well in the early grades at school until they got convinced by others that they are not that good.

Rosy retrospection – we tend to remember past better than it was. This gets magnified when we are not happy with our current circumstances. We tend to reminisce about the good old days. Even though nostalgia is not necessarily based on wrong memories, rosy retrospection is. It feeds on simplification and exaggeration of specific memories. Our brain then removes those memories that would be causing us discomfort.

Self-serving bias – we tend to remember being responsible for positive outcomes but not for negative ones. We are the heroes in our own stories, and we find the villains elsewhere. We have a need to maintain and enhance self-esteem. This leads to us ignoring negative feedback, overlooking mistakes we made, and exaggerating our achievements. When we succeed in some activity, we attribute the success to our effort and brilliance, “I won against all the odds.” When we fail at the same activity, we find the blame in the environment or others, “I refused to cheat as the others did, and so I didn’t win.”

Telescoping effect – we tend to misremember how far in the past events happened. Those that happened farther in the past are remembered as being more recent. Things that happened recently are remembered as being more remote. This effect can be, to some extent, mitigated by trying to remember the actual date rather than just trying to remember how many months or years ago the event happened.

Verbatim effect – we tend to remember the gist of information rather than the actual wording. We remember the core message, and when asked to quote verbatim, what exactly was said, or what did we read, we make up the details believing that we quote verbatim. This effect has a significant impact on decision making as we would make a decision not based on all the details, which we don’t remember, but on the gist, the framing, we stored in our memory. Different people may focus on different key aspects of the original event and thus have different recollections of what exactly happened.

Putting it all together

Human memory is a beautiful thing. It allows us to function in society, to feel pride in our past achievements, and to learn from our mistakes. It also protects us from things that could be harmful to our mental health. It simplifies the complex world around us. It is a trickster who shows us only what we want to see. It is a dangerous tool to rely on. It can deceive us. It can lead us astray. It can force us to fight the wrong battles.

Learn to know yourself and find humility. Accept that you may not always remember things as they truly happened. Accept that others may remember the same event very differently. Accept that you, as well as others, strongly believe that your memory is correct. Accept that you may misremember things more often than you are willing to admit. Listen and keep an open mind. As Mark Twain said, “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.”


What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you believe everything that you remember? Have you ever caught yourself being deluded by one of the biases? Have you ever truly believed that you remember things correctly only to be confronted with irrefutable proof that you are wrong? Which of the biases is the worse?

Photo: congerdesign / Pixabay.com

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