Lecture 8: Constructive Memory
What you experience as a memory is an inference. A reconstruction of what actually
Sir Frederic Bartlett:
The first to propose that what you experience is not the entire memory trace (physical
changes associated with memory formation) itself, but a reconstruction of the event.
Made people remember a native American folktale ‘War of the Ghosts,’ which
appeared too disjointed and superstitious to the British participants.
Task: Repeated Reproduction – The people had to reproduce (rewrite) the story they
heard as accurately as they could. He asked them to do this repeatedly over varying
time intervals, from days to weeks to months.
This tested how the person’s memory evolved over time.
More anecdotal observations than controlled experiments. He didn’t manipulate any
independent variables etc. Not a standard approach to psychology.
Their memories of the story conformed to their own expectations and attitudes:
o Recounts became shorter in length & simpler
o Either they excluded parts of the story they failed to
comprehend/understand (eg. The supernatural elements), or they added in
their own rationalised explanations for an event occurring.
The stories underwent dramatic change.
Memory is not the recovery of a memory trace or engram.
He dismissed the idea that what we’re experiencing when we’re consciously
retrieving a memory is the engram itself (which was the common view at that time).
Viewed memory as highly constructive and imaginative.
We weave together meaning from highly fragmented bits and pieces of data in our
o So our attitudes and expectations have a huge influence on what it is that we
Schema (pl. schemata)
o This constructive process is guided by a SCHEMA.
o = The organisational structure of an event in memory.
o Very high level and abstract representation of what happens. o Lacks specific details.
o Emphasis is on the broader meaning and coherence of an event, rather than
the specific details of what happened.
o We use schema to weave together bits and pieces of our memory in a way
that makes sense to us.
o If a detail does not make sense and does not fit in the schema, we are more
than happy to exclude it from our memory, even though it was present in the
o If a detail fits very well in the schema but was not actually part of the event in
the first place, we tend to add it to our memory anyway.
Memory distortion: Schemata & Gist
Experiment showed that people rely on a general schema or gist for typical environments.
Eg. In an office, the schema would include books, table, chair, shelves, so whether or not
they’re actually present in a particular room, people would generally think that they saw all
of these items when put into an office.
Memory is influenced by their EXPECTATIONS and GENERAL GIST/KNOWLEDGE of
what they saw.
There is logic to this reconstruction howeve not completely delusional.
Memory distortion: DRM Paradigm
Widely used lab technique to test memory distortion.
False recall of critical non-presented word as it fits very well in schema.
Very high rates of memory distortion
Associated with very high confidence and subjective certainty.
Real life example: Eye-witness identification
Fallibility and vulnerability of human memory wrongful conviction
Memory distortion: Source confusion
Not remembering the origin of a memory.