People too cocky about their memory, study finds

People think our memories are more reliable than they actually are, a new U.S. survey suggests.

People think our memories are more reliable than they actually are, a new U.S. survey suggests.

Researchers conducted a telephone poll of 1,500 people who were asked to agree or disagree with statements about memory to measure beliefs about how memory works. Those findings were then compared with the answers that 16 scientific experts gave to the same questions. 

Nearly two-thirds of lay respondents likened human memory to a video camera that records information precisely, and nearly 40 per cent said the testimony of a single confident eyewitness should be enough to convict someone of a crime.

But studies in cognitive psychology point in the opposite direction. Even confident witnesses are wrong about 30 per cent of the time, and the scientific experts surveyed for the study were all opposed to the notion that memory is so precise and accurate.

"People tend to place greater faith in the accuracy, completeness and vividness of their memories than they probably should," study author Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College in Lincoln, Neb., said in a release.

Most respondents, 83 per cent, said amnesia results in the inability to remember one's own identity. All the experts disagreed.

Agreement with this statement might reflect popular media portrayals of amnesia of characters who cannot remember who they are and suddenly leave, such as in The Bourne Identity, the researchers said. There are also more accurate representations of amnesia, such as in Memento, that portray amnesia as the loss of the ability to form and consolidate new memories, they authors said.

Chabris and study co-author Daniel Simons, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, concluded that the discrepancy between popular belief and scientific consensus has implications from the classroom to the courtroom.

"The prevalence of mistaken beliefs in the general public implies that similar misunderstandings likely are common among jurors and could well lead to flawed analyses of testimony that involves memory," they said in Thursday's issue of the journal PloS One.