We frequently learn more about memory from its failures rather than its successes. As such, our research has delved into the various contexts that result in episodic memory failures. We take the theoretical perspective that memory decisions are inferential in nature. An episodic event is not represented as a single unit, but rather a distribution of elements that can be differentially accessed at retrieval. Accessibility to those elements influences both memory and metamemorial decisions.
Understanding the Nature of Memory Fallibility
In the context of episodic long term memory our lab works to specify the boundaries by which memory reconstruction results in distortion. Our work takes the theoretical perspective that memory decisions are inferential in nature. An episodic event is not represented as a single unit, but rather a distribution of elements or attributes. Attributes, like pieces of a puzzle, must be recombined to reconstruct the memory.
Our research has demonstrated that incorrect recombination of attributes can result in incorrectly thinking one performed an action only imagined, incorrectly thinking that an event only thought about actually took place, and incorrectly remembering details in a witnessed event. We have learned that these memory errors can be increased by reducing the amount of time people have to respond, by forcing people to respond, by varying the time between experience and memory test, and by varying the similarity between the original experience and subsequent experiences.
Understanding How Age and Stress Affect Memory Fallibility
Stress and age independently and in combination influence memory fallibility. Research in our lab has demonstrated that as we age we are more likely to rely on automatic, or less cognitively effortful processes, often times resulting in memory errors and distortion.
For example, we have shown that people over the age of 60 are more likely to use the less effortful heuristics when retrieving verbal and spatial information, are less likely to use diagnostic attributes when making metacognitive predictions, and do not control memory encoding or output in efficacious ways. Psychosocial stress compounds these issues, with, for example, older adults adopting different memory retrieval strategies in the context of stereotype threat.
Minimizing Errors and Promoting Memory Accuracy
Understanding the factors that influence fallibility and developing techniques to reduce fallibility are core aspects to the research conducting in the Cognitive Aging and Memory Lab. We take three approaches towards error reduction. We investigate how metacognitive processes of monitoring and control can be used to become better aware of possible memory failings and implement strategies to reduce the occurrence of those failings.
We also investigate how metacognitive monitoring and control processes at retrieval can be used to regulate the output of errors. We investigate how external factors such as stress and anxiety positively influence the regulation of output, and ways in which memories can be encoded to overcome deleterious effects of stress.
Finally, we continue to develop intervention techniques that treat memory as a skill to be improved upon by training metacognitive skills and encouraging analytic and controlled processing.
The consequences of memory fallibility can be significant. Inaccurate recollection of medication-taking have resulted in overdoses. Inaccurate recollections of witnessed events have resulted in wrongful convictions. Inaccurate recollections of childhood experiences have destroyed families.