Memory is an imperfect process

Essay, 2009

7 Pages, Grade: 2:2

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‘Memory is an imperfect process’. Examine this statement.

Memory can be defined as “the processes that are used to acquire, store, retain and later retrieve information” (Wagner, 2009). There are different types of memory, such as short term memory (STM), also called the working memory, which is often only stored for between 20-30 seconds due to limited capacity. Information is often displaced from the STM unless the information is rehearsed which then leads to it being transferred into the long term memory (LTM). The STM is used for things such as dialling a telephone number which, once dialled is often forgotten as it no longer has any relevance (Waugh & Norman, 1965, cited by Kowalski & Westen, 2005, p. 196). In contrast, the LTM holds more relevant information which may be needed in the future such as; dates, facts and emotions. If the information is later needed and therefore retrieved it will be brought back into the conscious mind and therefore into the STM (Kowalski & Westen, 2005, p.197). However there is a lot of evidence to suggest that memory is not a perfect process which will be discussed within this essay. Memory is often considered to be an imperfect process due to things such as memories are often distorted, false memories occurring (Schacter, 1999, p.193) along with people being suggestible to others memories leading them to believing them to be their own. Other sources suggest that some types of memory are perfect. For example remembering actions, such as riding a bike is often unforgettable (Kowalski & Westen, 2005, p .194).

When looking at whether memory is an imperfect process some may begin by looking at children. Children have been found to have a less developed memory than adults meaning that they are able to recall events however they are more likely to ‘save’ it in a simpler form than what adults would perhaps do (Case, 1985; Chi, 1978; Fischer, 1980 cited by Pezdek & Banks, 1996, p.5). Researchers have also found that children’s memories appear to fade quicker than adults and therefore are more likely to be influenced by leading questions, for example if someone inferred an event occurred they would be more likely to agree that it did (Brainerd & Reyna, 1991; Flin, Boon, Knox & Bull, 1992 cited by Pezdek and Banks, 1996, p.5). However, in contrast to these beliefs, Kail (1990, cited by Pezdek and Banks, 1996, p.5) found that children’s memories are often more accurate than adults as they were less likely to be influenced by external sources, unlike adults, and therefore are less likely to be distorted by the world around them. Therefore, in many ways children’s memories are imperfect but, if asked about the event straight after it happened a child appears more likely to give a more accurate account as to what occurred than if an adult was asked.

A further reason of why memory is an imperfect process is due to people having “false memories” where plausible events are ‘remembered’ despite the fact that they did not (Conway, 1997, p.180). Conway found that if cues were given when asking about past events then false memories were more likely to occur. Magnussen and Helstrup (2007, p.174) found that children under five were more likely to agree that fabricated events had happened, and therefore having false memories, than those who were older. However, children supposedly have a less distorted memory then adults so perhaps, despite some memories being false, the true memories they have are supposedly more accurate (Kial, 1990, cited by Pezdek & Banks, 1996, p. 5).

Furthermore, people also have ‘schemas’ which allow information to be distorted to fit our expectations of what we believe would happen in an event. For example, when we think of a kitchen in someone’s house we would automatically, for instance say there was a fridge and freezer. However, we may not have specifically seen them our schema has just been built to assume what would be in a kitchen so we think we saw it when we may not have (Sammons, p.1). In some form it is a type of stereotyping about an event which often occurs in crime situations when asking for eye witness testimony leading to the evidence lacking reliability, as discussed below.

Despite eyewitness testimony being taken as a reliable source of evidence in court, there is a lot of evidence debating the reliability of memory and whether what the victim, or bystanders, say is in fact reliable or due to cues (leading questions) given and their schema of the event. Magnussen and Helstrup (2007, p.162) found that the “participants” of the event changed over time”. It was then found, when interviewed again a few months later that the witnesses told slightly different stories to what they originally said as they were influenced by their schema and peers to fill in the gaps which they could no longer remember. There is also the argument that people are often one-sided as to what they remember, or saw occur at the occurrence in question. For example, at a crime scene one eyewitness may remember the colour of the top the offender was wearing whilst others may remember what phone they had (Kowalski & Westen, 2005, p. 216). This also perhaps supports decay theory, which is discussed later on within this essay which suggests that overtime memories fade and are lost if not retrieved for a long period of time and therefore is imperfect as it convinces the individual that the information it gives is true, even if created by the schema. This also suggests that eyewitness testimony is less reliable if the evidence is given a long period of time after the crime (Hogg & Vaughan, 2002, p.66).

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Memory is an imperfect process
University of Portsmouth
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Louise Grant (Author), 2009, Memory is an imperfect process, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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