Science Says Your Memories Are Fooling You — How Much Can You Trust What You Think You Remember?

It might feel that everything you remember is absolute as if nothing could sway you to think otherwise. Yet memories are affected by recency, primacy and many other things in the world.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Do you know that scene in Harry Potter? The one in which Dumbledore stands next to Harry, they’re shooting the breeze, when the headmaster drags a memory from his mind. He flicks the white, streaky memory in the Pensieve, as it hits the water it swirls around, to be kept until someone wants to experience it again.

“I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” — Dumbledore

Well, that leads me to a fascinating point; that we might want to preserve a memory because the way something happened might not always be the way it’s remembered. In that memories can become lost or fragmented, or frankly even completely misremembered altogether.

Our Memories Are Pretty Unreliable

It’s pretty bamboozling that you can experience something and years later have constructed an entirely different memory. Especially when you consider the large role memories play in our universe.

We use our memories consistently to make decisions in our lives. Your memory of how good the lunch menu was at that little place around the corner will be part of your decision to return. Your memory of your experience at that hotel will predict whether you go back. Or maybe your memory of how that conversation went with that person on zoom, will be part of the decision to communicate with them again.

“Memory is the diary we all carry about with us.” ― Oscar Wilde

Sometimes, well, a lot of the time, we make decisions under uncertainty. Someone famously said that the only thing certain in this life are taxes and death so maybe, in that sense, everything is uncertain.

So in that case, memories are really quite important.

You Use Memories to Make Decisions

The moment you stop experiencing something, it becomes a memory. And so we create memories in every moment of every day. It suffices to say that it would be counterproductive to keep every memory of your world view. You’d be overwhelmed with thoughts, although it leads me to think that I probably could do with a memory clear out.

A few years ago I was clearing out my reams of paperwork that had accumulated over the years. I stumbled across a box of photos that I’d kept from years prior as a keepsake; as I rooted through I realised all these memories were stored away somewhere that I hadn't accessed for years. I forgot about the late nights, the junk food, the partying.

We forget what we don’t often bring back. And when you reminisce something weird happens.

How you remember an event is an interesting thought. You might read that sentence and think: “how could you remember an event wrong?” You might think you give something a fair assessment, you weigh up a fair sample of what happened, when, why and conclude whether the experience was positive and worth doing again or negative not worth your time.

We use memories in everything we think about. Memories of how good that coffee was, how tasty that takeaway was, how good that book was. You don’t remember every sip you took, bite you ate or page you read but you recall certain elements of that activity in order to rate the experience. That in large part will dictate whether you decide to engage with the activity again.

Negative experiences generally lead to not doing the activity again.

And You Can Prime Memories to Led to Different Decisions

Memories are used to make decisions but now of course if you are making the same choice over and over, it’s unlikely you are going to spend the time thinking of the 50–100 instances where you made said decision and then take a fair sample of them. What instead you will do is take a sample from your brain and conclude which way to go.

A 2014 paper found that priming had an effect on decision making. In other words, when the subject was reminded of their past wins they were about 15% more likely to gamble compared to when they weren’t. Pretty powerful stuff.

“We found that priming cues associated with wins caused people to become risk-seeking, whereas priming cues associated with relative losses had little effect.”

The lesson here for us is quite an interesting one. First, it’s about understanding how you select your memories for certain activities. Are you biasing the data that you are selecting in order to lead you to make a particular decision? In other words, are you only remembering the good bids in order to justify the decision? And then secondly it’s about learning how to use this to your advantage.

Final Thought: Use Your Memories Wisely

We all remember events. Whether we remember them correctly is a different story altogether. In the absence of a Pensieve, make sure you store memories that will serve you well and if you want to remember them more accurately, practice recalling them soon after the event.

  • Memories play a large role in your decision making.
  • Memories can be reframed through recall and that can be dangerous for the decisions you make.
  • Use your memories with caution.

And remember to remember wisely.