The Seven Sins of Memory
The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers is a book (ISBN 0-618-21919-6) by Daniel Schacter, former chair of Harvard University's Psychology Department and a leading memory researcher.
The book revolves around the theory that "the seven sins of memory" are similar to the Seven deadly sins, and that if one tries to avoid committing these sins, it will help to improve one's ability to remember. He argues that these features of human memory are not necessarily bad, and that they actually serve a useful purpose in memory. For instance, persistence is one of the sins of memory that can lead to things like post traumatic stress syndrome. However persistence is also necessary for long-term memory, and so it is essential.
Schacter asserts that "memory's malfunctions can be divided into seven fundamental transgressions or 'sins'." These are transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The first three are described as sins of omission, since the result is a failure to recall an idea, fact, or event. The other four sins (misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence) are sins of commission, meaning that there is a form of memory present, but it is not of the desired fidelity or the desired fact, event, or ideas.
Types of Memory Failure
Transience refers to the general deterioration of a specific memory over time. Much more can be remembered of recent events than those further in one's past. This is especially true with episodic memory, because every time an episodic memory is recalled, it is re-encoded within the hippocampus, altering the memory each time one recalls it. Transience is caused because of interference. There are two types of interference: proactive interference (old information inhibits the ability to remember new information), and retroactive interference (new information inhibits the ability to remember old information).
This form of memory breakdown involves problems at the point where attention and memory interface. Common errors of this type include misplacing keys or eyeglasses, or forgetting appointments, because at the time of encoding sufficient attention was not paid to what would later need to be recalled.
Blocking is when the brain tries to retrieve or encode information, but another memory interferes with it. Blocking is a primary cause of Tip of the tongue phenomenon (a temporary inaccessibility of stored information).
Misattribution is the first of the sins of commission which are discussed in the book. It entails correct recollection of information with incorrect recollection of the source of that information. For example, a person who witnesses a murder after watching a television program may incorrectly blame the murder on someone he or she saw on the television program. This error has profound consequences in legal systems because of its unacknowledged prevalence and the confidence which is often placed in the person's ability to impart correctly information critical to suspect identification.
Suggestibility is somewhat similar to misattribution, but with the inclusion of overt suggestion. It is the acceptance of a false suggestion made by others. Memories of the past are often influenced by the manner in which they are recalled, and when subtle emphasis is placed on certain aspects which might seem likely to a specific type of memory, those emphasized aspects are sometimes incorporated into the recollection, whether or not they actually occurred. For example, a person sees a crime being committed by a redheaded man. Subsequently, after reading in the newspaper that the crime was committed by a brown-haired man, the witness "remembers" a brown-haired man instead of a redheaded man.
Loftus and Palmer's work into leading questions is an example of such suggestibility.
The sin of bias is similar to the sin of suggestibility in that one's current feelings and worldview distort remembrance of past events. This can pertain to specific incidences and the general conception one has of a certain period in one's life. This occurs partly because memories encoded while a person was feeling a certain level of arousal and a certain type of emotion come to mind more quickly when a person is in a similar mood. Thus, a contented adult might look back with fondness on his or her childhood, induced to do so by positive memories from that time which might not be actually representative of his/her average mood during his/her childhood.
This failure of the memory system involves the unwanted recall of information that is disturbing. The remembrance can range from a blunder on the job to a truly traumatic experience, and the persistent recall can lead to formation of phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicide in particularly disturbing or intrusive instances.
- D. Schacter. The Seven Sins of Memory, Houghton Mifflin, 2001. p.4