How Good Is Your Memory?

While in college earning my bachelor’s degree in Psychology, I had the opportunity to conduct two interesting experiments on the subject of memory and recall.  What I learned from these experiments surprised me and forever changed the way I feel about the ability of the human mind to recall anything accurately.

The First Experiment:  Eyewitness Recall

I was taking a Psychology and the Law class and studying people’s ability to recall details of a crime they’ve witnessed.  In this experiment I was studying the weapon focus effect.  The weapon focus effect is one in which the presence of a weapon decreases the ability of the witness to accurately recall details of the appearance of the criminal and other details of the crime.  Basically if someone is robbing you with a gun you will be so focused on the weapon that you won’t attend to other details of the crime.  But if the person is not holding a weapon you can recall much more.

For my experiment, however, I wanted to see if it was a weapon that caused the faulty recall or if it was merely any object unusual enough to draw a person’s attention.

For this experiment I had two accomplices, one of my professors and a friend willing to be the “criminal.”  In all cases, my friend walked into the professor’s class 8 minutes after it began and they staged a contrived, heated argument about a grade.  I had four conditions:

1st case:  My friend was holding a fake knife (an item identifiable as a weapon)
2nd case: My friend was holding a big orange construction cone (non-threatening but unusual and attention-getting)
3rd case:  My friend was holding three books (non-threatening and common in a classroom setting)
4th case:  My friend held nothing (nothing to focus on)

After their contrived argument, where my friend threatened the teacher with “I’ll get you for this” and stormed out, the professor asked the students not to say a single word but to fill out a form where the students were asked questions like, “What was he wearing?” “What was he holding if anything?” “How long did the incident last?” and “What threats, if any, were made?”

After the students all filled out their papers, I came in and debriefed them and let them know they took part in a psychology experiment.  It was great fun!  I took home their responses and tallied the results.  What I found did not surprise me.

In the first case where my friend wielded the fake knife, nearly everyone reported that he was holding a knife.  But on almost all other counts they were woefully inaccurate.  Some said the incident lasted 4 minutes, some 10 minutes.  In fact, I timed the incident and it was just 15 seconds.  No one could remember what he was wearing or how tall he was.  The range of “guesses” was all over the board.  Interestingly, people thought he threatened to “kill” the teacher even though that word was never used!  So that interested me greatly.

In the case where he was holding the big orange cone, the same thing happened.  People could remember the cone but hardly any other details accurately.  Some people said they were so focused on figuring out why he was holding a big orange cone that they never got a chance to notice anything else.  Most people couldn’t even say whether my friend was black or white.

In the case where my friend held just books and in the case where he held nothing, people’s accuracy shot way up.  They did great at describing what he was wearing, how long the incident lasted, what was said, etc.

I concluded that when the brain is trying to process something unexpected it seems to devote most of its resources to defining the unusual item rather than collecting data of a more mundane nature.

I had a lot of empathy for police officers who must gather details of a crime from eyewitnesses.  No wonder they try to get testimony quickly after the crime and ask you how sure you are of the details.  In my experiment less than a minute passed from the time the “crime” occurred to the time they were asked questions about it and still they were not very accurate.

Oh, I also asked people how confident they were in their memory of the events.  Nearly everyone checked off that they were very confident their memory of the event was accurate, and yet look how wrong they were.

The Second Experiment: How Stereotypes Affect Recall

A year or so after the first experiment I was taking a Cognitive Psychology class and we were required to conduct another experiment.  This time I worked with a partner and we decided to see how stereotypes affected recall.  Based on previous research, our theory was that people would insert details into a recalled event based on stereotypes.  Here is how we tested our theory.

We were testing 4 stereotypes: nerd, homeless guy, affluent man, jock.

Our nerd had glasses with tape in the middle, a pocket protector, a digital watch, and a pencil tucked into his ear.  Our homeless guy was wearing many layers of clothing, scruffy beard, face dirty, holes in his clothing and shoes.  Our affluent man wore a business suit and tie, rolex watch, carried a briefcase, and had a flashy ring.  Our jock was wearing a football jersey, had a baseball cap on backwards, was very muscular, and was holding a football.

We took photos of each person dressed in their stereotypical garb, and then each person dressed in very plain garb (white t-shirt, blue jeans, sneakers with no other indicators of status or class, etc.)

Then we concocted stories surrounding each stereotype, one was very stereotypical and one was very non-descript with no stereotypical indicators.  For example in our nerd story:

Jason is an electrical engineer for Hughes Aircraft.  He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Stanford and won a scholarship.  He has never had a girlfriend, likes to play computer games, counts cards when he plays Black Jack in Vegas, etc.

But in our non-descript story it was more like:  Jason is a friendly guy who likes to hang out with friends on the weekends.  He has a good paying job, lives in a 2 bedroom apartment, and has a dog.  He has a Bachelor’s degree.

The other stereotypes got the same treatment, a stereotypical story and a non-descript story.

Then we paired the photos with the story:
Stereotypical appearance / Stereotypical story
Stereotypical appearance / Non-descript story
Non-descript appearance / Stereotypical story
Non-descript appearance / Non-descript story

We let people hear the story and see the photos and then asked them questions about the person they saw/heard to see how much they could remember about the person’s life.

In the first case (stereotypical appearance and story), recall was excellent.

In the second case (stereotypical appearance with non-descript story), people made up things about our guy that fit the stereotype but which were never mentioned in the non-descript story.  For example, when they saw our nerd they assumed he was either a mathematician or computer guy even though his specific job was never mentioned.  They assumed he did not have a girlfriend even though that was never mentioned either.  So people inserted facts about a person based solely on their stereotypical expectations as suggested by their appearance.

In the third case (non-descript appearance with stereotypical story), people had low recall.  When the story didn’t jive with what the person was seeing it was harder for them to recall details of the person’s life.

And in the fourth case where both conditions were non-descript, recall was also very low.  With nothing stereotypical to latch onto the details of the person’s life went largely unrecalled.

So what did we conclude from this?  A person’s appearance heavily influences others’ predictions about their behavior and life circumstances.  People will assume things about you simply based on the factors of your appearance.  I’m sure many of us have experienced this condition.  You see someone that fits a stereotypical pattern and treat them “accordingly” based on assumptions you are making about that person.

Without ever getting to know a person, you begin to fill in details that may or may not be true.  How does this affect how we interact with each other?  How does this affect how we treat each other?

In a related blog entry, Can You Spare a Dime?, my partner and I conducted an experiment to see if appearance and perceived social class had anything to do with people’s willingness to give you money to make a phone call. 

So why does this matter?  In today’s society I feel like we are constantly judging people we don’t even know.  Don’t we assume a lot about a person based on how they look or their ethnicity?  I remember after 9/11 that people were suspicious of everyone who looked Arab or Muslim, like they had to be a terrorist.  And remember what happened in America during World War II with the Japanese internment camps?  In 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the exclusion, removal, and detention, arguing that it is permissible to curtail the civil rights of a racial group when there is a “pressing public necessity.”  It was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency that an official apology was presented stating government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

When we assume a person is a member of a stereotypical group we assume they have all the dominant characteristics of that group.  Some people think all vegans are activists going around letting animals out of cages at universities.  Some people think all sorority girls are sluts.  Some people think all homeless people are lazy or crazy.  And all jocks are stupid, right? 

Thanks for the Memories

What are your memories based upon?  Are you so focused on the tree that you can’t see the forest?  Are you making an assumption about someone before you’ve ever gotten to know them based on just one experience with them or one of their physical attributes? 

Yesterday I had an interaction with someone I’d never met.  We were having a really amiable conversation when he asked me what I did for a living.  I told him I’m a psychic medium, and his whole demeanor changed.  He got very uncomfortable.  I could tell he was running one of two programs:  “If she’s psychic she can read my mind and she knows all my dark secrets” or “Psychics are frauds and charlatans.”  I wasn’t sure which one, but something happened and he went totally stiff and blank on me.  This happens to me a lot.  I am judged by the stereotypes surrounding psychics whether I fit them or not. 

What I learned in college from studying human memory is that the mind often constructs the story and adds the details that will support the story.  It’s something to think about as we interact with people on a daily basis and on a global level too.  What would happen if we dropped the stereotypes and actually got to know people for who they really are?

If you liked this article, sign up to receive free updates.

Erin Recommends