Invited Symposium: The Way We Were — Maybe

Why People Tend to Revise History With Inaccurate Recollection

Biases in Autobiographical, Interpersonal, and Social Memories

Anne E. Wilson, chair
Wilfred Laurier University

Presenters
Benjamin R. Karney
University of Florida
Richard P. Eibach
Yale University
John J. Skowronski
Northern Illinois University

According to a popular maxim, those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it. But what about people who remember it but not exactly as it happened? During the invited symposium “Biases in Autobiographical, Interpersonal, and Social Memories,” a panel of researchers discussed why people tend to revise history and what happens as a result.

In relationships, people have a systematic bias to remember more satisfaction and more change, noted Benjamin R. Karney, University of Florida . Human memories are crucial because they are associated with the present and the future. “What is it about the past that makes people hopeful about the future stability of relationships?” Karney asked.

In an attempt to answer that question, Karney and his colleagues asked newlyweds to describe recent changes in their relationship every six months for two and a half years. At the final assessment, participants were also asked to remember the complete trajectory of change over time. At almost every interval, couples reported stability or decline in their relationship. However, in their retrospective recall, the spouses recalled improvement after every interval, with memories of the distant past being more accurate than recent memories.

“People seem to be able to say, ‘We’re getting better lately,’ and that’s the seed of hope,” Karney concluded.

While couples are motivated to remember improvement, Richard P. Eibach, Yale University , noted there is a collective tendency to perceive societal decline because people mistake change in themselves for change in the world.

In an experiment designed to examine this phenomenon, participants viewed two blocks of images, each one containing an equal mix of pleasant, neutral, and disturbing images. In the parental perception task, participants were asked if the images could be viewed by fourth-grade girls. In the peer perception task, they were asked if undergraduates could view the images. People who were asked to view the first block of images as a peer and the second block as a parent — a condition meant to simulate the transition to parenthood — reported the second block was more disturbing than the first. Those who viewed the first block as a parent and the second as a peer reported the reverse.

According to APS Charter Member John J. Skowronski, Northern Illinois University , our current feelings about events change over time, a phenomenon referred to as fading affect bias. Skowronski’s research shows that sharing a negative event increases the fading of emotions associated with it, whereas sharing a positive event decreases the fading of affect. Fading affect bias is also related to the frequency and breadth of social discourse. When someone discusses an event with many different people, fading affect bias occurs. However, if the event is shared with few people, the fading affect bias is small. Interestingly, these trends are seen when participants are asked to recall memories and report on their disclosure of them, and when the disclosure of autobiographical events is manipulated experimentally.

“Social norms may have an indirect influence on autobiographical memory, content and emotion because communication is governed by social norms that regulate what is disclosed to whom, when and under what circumstances,” Skowronski said.

Our feelings about an event may make it seem more recent or distant than it actually was, argued Anne E. Wilson, Wilfrid Laurier University . Wilson and her fellow researchers asked first-year university students to recall four autobiographical events — the start of ninth grade, the prom, the Canadian holiday July 1, and the start of university. Participants also noted how hard it was to recall each event and remarked on their memory quality. Participants reported that July 1, which happened five months before the study, felt almost as distant as the start of ninth grade, which was almost five years ago. Prom felt the closest.

“People knew the objective order of events,” Wilson said, “but that didn’t stop them from feeling like the prom was yesterday.”

In a related body of research, Wilson and her colleagues showed that people who felt they knew a great deal about a news event felt it was subjectively closer and had better memory quality. “Memory quality may increase subjective feeling of temporal closeness while providing information about dating accuracy,” Wilson concluded.

Observer Vol.17, No.8 August, 2004

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