Memories are often unreliable

Our memory is part of what makes us human. But it's far from perfect.

Psychologists are investigating the seven categories of memory. Three involve forgetting, and four involve a faulty memory. As with many cognitive biases, the first step is awareness.

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  • Transience. This sin involves forgetting over time. Studies found that nearly 50% of participants had significant errors in their memory of the O.J. Simpson trial verdict after three years.
  • Absent-mindedness. We have lapses of attention. We forget where we left an object or what we were planning to do.
  • Blocking. We experience the tip-of-the-tongue syndrome. This happens when the brain tries to retrieve information, but another memory interferes.
  • Misattribution. This sin is the correct recollection of information but connected to the wrong source. We may even think we are the source or may recall events that never happened.
  • Suggestibility. Our memory is vulnerable to misinformation caused by leading questions or deception from other people. This can lead to false memories.
  • Bias. Our current beliefs or feelings can retrospectively distort our memory.
  • Persistence. We want to forget, but our brain wants to hold on to the memory—for example, trauma, a mistake or an embarrassing moment.

Strategies to mitigate some of the most harmful effects of memory biases:

  • Get information soon after an event, when everyone still remembers it.
  • Use a prioritised task list.
  • Take notes from important events, such as meetings.
  • Record important events and milestones daily.
  • Use neutral questions when requesting information.
  • Pay attention to the perspective of the person providing the information.
  • Notice the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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