Figure

Memory for personal events as a function of the number of cues available and the length of the retention interval. Adapted from Wagenaar (1986).

personal events. However, over 60% of political events were dated with reference to other political events, compared to only 31% that were related to personal events. In contrast, two-thirds of the landmarks used to date non-political events were personal events.

Accuracy of autobiographical memories

How accurate are our memories of past events? It is hard to know, because we do not generally have access to objective information about what actually happened. A dramatic exception to this occurred with respect to the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, in which it emerged that President Nixon and his associates had engaged in a "cover-up" of the White House involvement in the Watergate burglary. The case was of interest to memory researchers, because tape recordings had been made of all the conversations that had taken place in the Oval Office of the White House.

Neisser (1981) compared these tape recordings with the testimony to the Watergate Committee of John Dean, who had been counsel to the President. Of particular interest was Dean's recollection about nine months after it had happened of a conversation involving President Nixon, Bob Haldeman (Nixon's chief of staff), and John Dean on 15 September 1972 to discuss the Watergate situation. According to Neisser (1981, p. 12):

Dean's account of the opening of the September 15 conversation is wrong both as to the words used and their gist.. .His testimony had much truth in it, but not at the level of "gist". It was true at a deeper level. Nixon was the kind of man Dean described, he had the knowledge Dean attributed to him, there was a cover-up. Dean remembered all of that; he just didn't recall the actual conversation he was testifying about.

It may be unwise to attach too much weight to John Dean's testimony, as he did not know that tape recordings had been made. In order to defend himself effectively, he had to claim he remembered the details of conversations held several months previously. Nevertheless, the notion that our recollections are more likely to be broadly "true" rather than strictly accurate is supported by other evidence. Barclay (1988) used tests of recognition memory to assess the accuracy of people's memories for personal events they had recorded in diaries. These tests were made difficult by using as distractors events resembling actual personal events. The participants made many errors, but their autobiographical memory was truthful in that it corresponded to the gist of their actual experiences.

Our autobiographical memories are sometimes less truthful than has been suggested so far. Dean's memory for the conversations with the President gave Dean too active and significant a role. It is as if Dean remembered the conversations as he wished them to have been. Perhaps people have a self-schema (organised knowledge about themselves) that influences how they perceive and remember personal information. Someone as ambitious and egotistical as Dean might have focused mainly on those aspects of conversations in which he played a dominant role, and this selective attention may then have affected his later recall. As Haberlandt (1999, p. 226) argued, "The autobiographical narrative...does preserve essential events as they were experienced, but it is not a factual report; rather, the account seeks to make a certain point, to unify events, or to justify them."

Evaluation

Autobiographical memories seem to be stored in categories, and they are organised in a hierarchical way. New or first-time experiences tend to be especially memorable, thus giving rise to the reminiscence bump. Future research should focus more on the relationship between the self-concept or personality and autobiographical memory. People's personalities help to determine what they recall of their lives, and the errors and distinctions they make in their personal recollections. After all, one reason why people read autobiographies is because they believe that what the author remembers, and how he or she remembers it, sheds light on the author's character. The greatest problem with most research in this area is that it is hard to establish the accuracy of autobiographical memories.

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