Reliability of Memory Jaime and Val

With reference to relevant research studies, to what extent is cognitive process reliable?

Cognitive processes guide our behaviors and one important process is memory. In legal systems, the memory of witnesses is used to determine or not the person in trial is guilty or not. In this way, memory is relied on heavily to determine serious matters. But is memory actually as reliable as it seems? Researchers have found that memory has a reconstructive nature, referring to the brain’s “active processing of information to make sense of the world” (Crane & Hannibal, 2009). They have also found that memories may be influenced by different factors that were not present when the memory was first stored. False memories can occur for a variety of factors, one being that schemas influence the recall of memories as argued by Frederic Bartlett and another being visual imagery. Due to these factors, memory is often unreliable because they can be distorted and inaccurate.

One possible factor relation to the reconstruction of memories is the schema theory, causing memory to be unreliable. ​Schema theory can be explained to the knowledge that has already been attained from previous experiences that has influence on our perceptions of certain things that are associated with specific experiences. For example, Elizabeth Loftus conducted an experiment where she manipulated questions asked participants after watching a film to see how different questions affect memory. Loftus and Palmer (1974) used 45 students in their first study, where all the students watched films of traffic accidents and then had to estimate the speed of the car shown in the film. They wanted to see if changing one word in critical questions influence the estimation of speed of the car in the film (Crane & Hannibal, 2009). The critical question, also the independent variable, was: About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other? “Hit” was replaced by “smashed”, “collided”, “bumped”, and “contacted” in different trials. The dependent variable was the estimation of speed in miles per hour. They found that using words such as “smashed” and “collided” in the question increased the estimation of speed. In a second experiment consisting of 150 students, three different groups of 50 were asked questions about a film of a car accident. One group was asked the same critical question as the first experiment but using the word “hit”, the second group with the word “smashed”, and the third group (the control group) was not asked about speed. A week later, they were tested again but this time they were asked if they had seen broken glass in the film and were instructed to answer yes or no. There was no broken glass, however the first group with “smashed” had the most repors of seeing glass at 16, the second group with “hit” had 7 reports, and the control group had 6 reports. In both experiments, different words seemed to have an effect on both estimation of speed as well as perception of consequences. From these particular trends, they concluded that “smashed” activates schemas for severe accidents, so participants are likely to imagine a severe outcome involving broken glass. Schemas are mental representations of the world based on existing knowledge of particular things. It can be concluded from the results of Loftus’ study that false memories can be created through schemas that reconstruct memories, causing them to be inaccurate. This inaccuracy causes the reliability of memory to be questioned, since memory can be reconstructed through already-existing and post-event information. From Loftus’ experiments, memory is presented as unreliable due to schemas reconstructing memory.

In forensic investigations, eyewitnesses are often used to help describe people, objects, of events that they don’t remember too clearly or didn’t actually witness. For example, in one research study, a police officer interrogated a child who had witnessed an event which included three men and a woman. The police officer asked the child about the woman’s poncho and cap, however the woman wasn’t actually wearing a poncho or any sort of hat. The police officer started off by asking if the woman was wearing a poncho and a cap. The child replied, “I think it was a cap” (cite), thus leading the police officer to ask what kind of cap she was wearing. Since the child was already led to believe that the woman was wearing a cap, she went on to describe that hat, stating “It was flared with a sort of button thing in the middle” (cite). The police officer then asked the child what color the hat was, and the child replied “Oh! Oh - I think it was um, black or brown.” (cite) Although the police officer provided several suggestive influences in the interrogation, this study shows that “pressing the witness to describe the fictitious cap altered her memory for the witnessed event” (cite). Throughout the interrogation, the child became more and more confident in her answers and in believing that she really did see this woman with her cap and poncho, even though it was in fact a false memory. Because the investigator was asking leading questions, the child was lead towards thinking that the woman was indeed wearing a poncho and cap. Her memory was distorted because she wasn't sure in the first place, and after being interrogated, her mindset had shifted to what the police officer wanted her to think, thus making her memory unreliable. So why is it that pressing witnesses to give descriptions of suggested objects or events creates false memories? Research has shown that “memories of suggested events will be confusable for memories of ‘real’ events to the extent that memories of suggested events contain features that are similar to characteristics of ‘real’ events” (cite). It has been proved that visual imagery is a factor that can cause the mind to create false memories, and therefore causing memory to be unreliable.

In conclusion, there are various factors that cause memory to be unreliable including the schema theroy, as well as visual imagery. While schemas can create false memories by reconstructing certain memories, causing them to be inaccurate, visual imagery can be used in real-life forensics situations to influence how one recalls memories, and this can also create false memories. Witness testimonies can only be trusted to an extent, as certain questions can cause false recollection of memory as shown in the experiments mentioned above.

With reference to:
Crane, J., & Hannibal, J. (2009). Psychology.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lane, S, & Zaragoza, M. (2007). A Little elaboration goes a long way: the generation in eyewitness suggestibility. Memory & Cognition, 35(6),


Mary and VonLyn
The human brain is one of the most important parts of the human body; not only does it control the body's functions, it's also the storage of all the memories. The brain is an elastic storage system capable of unlimited storage, yet as scientists examine the brain in more detail, questions have arisen in regards to the reliability of the memories created by the brain. People telling the same story often have different versions of the same event; this is because memory is influenced by many factors, such as environmental or emotional influences. The result of this is the formation of reconstructive memory, which means that the brain processes information in a way that makes sense to the individual. The first person to discover this nature of memory was Frederic Bartlett, and a modern study conducted by Dent also showed the same results. Both of these research studies questioned the reliability of memory and concluded that memory is reconstructive, which means that it may not be the best source of information.

One of the most commonly known research studies that deals with the reliability of memory is the experiment by Frederic Bartlett (1932). His participants, who did not know anything about the aims of his research, were given lengthy stories from other cultures that may not make sense to the participant. One of them was The War of the Ghosts, a native American legend. After 15 minutes, the participants had to re-tell the story a number of times. Bartlett noticed that as the participants repeated the story a number of times, they eliminated details from the story which did not correspond with the habits of their own culture. The stories were made more coherent to the individual by trying to make sense of the story using pre-existing schemas, which are mental representations of the world that humans store from previuos memories. Often times, objects or events are organized so that related objects fit under one schema, like a web with a main topic and side topics branching from it. Thus, the participants tried to make the stories coherent by fitting the story into previous schemas, and associating other objects that may not have appeared, but are a part of the previous schema. Also, the content was shortened to 180 words to simplify what needs to be remembered. Bartlett was the first person to name this process as reconstructive,meaning that new experiences, especially complex information that does not make sense to us, are altered based on our existing schemas and memories so that it makes sense to us. These schemas may be culturally based or experience-based, but individuals will reconstruct the memory so that it makes sense. Information from a variety schemas and memories are derived and mixed with the present experience, which then becomes the memory that the individual believes is true. This is why every person will have a different account of the same event. This leads to the question of whether memory is reliable; though the participants in Bartlett's experiment were still able to recognize the key events that formed the basis of the story, other details were either altered or omitted. This is to suggest that memory is unreliable to the extent of details; minor details are easily replaced and altered by the individual, so if one wished to examine details of an event, information should be recorded from many people, not just one person. However, the main idea of the events are kept the same, which means that memories can be relied on to the extent of key ideas.

Based on various studies, it is found that memory is not an entirely reliable cognitive process. Dent (1982) described a situation in which a police officer interrogated a child who had witnessed an event involving three men and a woman. In short, the officer inquired about the woman’s poncho and cap when she was actually wearing neither. However, the witness claimed that the woman had a cap and even described it. This may be due to the leading questions that the police officer asked and consequently, altered the witness’s memory of the event. This shows that pressing witnesses to generate descriptions of suggested items promote the development of false memories because these generated descriptions contain sensory information that is similar to information which is actually perceived. That is, evidence shows that memories of suggested events will be confusable for memories of “real” events to the extent that memories of suggested events contain features that are similar to characteristics of memories of “real” events. This means that the memory obtained may not necessarily be entirely accurate, which further shows that memory is not an entirely reliable cognitive process. Also, in an experiment conducted by Lane and Zaragoza, participants were asked to look at images of a certain event and forty-eight hours later, were asked to read paragraphs describing the same event and to provide details from the slides that were mentioned in the paragraphs. After conducting this experiment, Lane and Zaragoza came to the conclusion that generating descriptions after reading them led to an increase in the incorrect recollection of the items in the witnessed event. Furthermore, these false memories were confidently held. In fact, these false memories were remembered more than the false memories from reading the descriptions. This difference in the recollection of generated situations and read situations reveals that it is the act of generating perceptual details and not the exposure to them which is key in the creation of false memories. Once again, this reveals that memory is not an entirely reliable cognitive process when pushed to recall situations that were not remembered well.

Based on these research studies, it can be concluded that the cognitive process of memory is not entirely reliable. In the above experiments, participants omitted, altered, or added certain details when asked to recollect certain events. This shows that memory is reconstructive, meaning that people have a subconscious tendency to modify a certain event to fit their own beliefs, experiences, and schemas when recollecting it. In fact, often times, the "false memories" that results from the incorrect recollection of an event is confidently believed to be the actual event and thus, people treat and react towards it as if it were an actual depiction of the situation. As a result, the memories can be misleading, which supports the fact that in the grand scheme of things, memory is not an entirely reliable cognitive process.


Works Cited:

Crane, J., & Hannibel, J. (2009). Psychology Course Companion.
Oxford Univeristy Press: Bell and Bain Ltd, Glasgow.

Lane, S.M., & Zaragoza, M.S. (2007). A Little elaboration goes a
long way: the role of generation in eyewitness suggestibility.
Psychonomic Society, Inc., 1255-1266.