The Distinctiveness Heuristic

  The distinctiveness heuristic is a rule of thumb that leads people to rely upon recollection of distinctive details of an experience before they are willing to say that they remember it. The distinctiveness heuristic is a System 1 process (See the blog “Two Process Theory of Cognition”) that is beneficial most of the time, but can lead to serious errors. Elderly adults sometimes are especially prone to false recognition, misattribution errors. They have a harder time of calling up specified recollections than do younger adults, and they tend to rely more on general familiarity. This is a strong combination for producing misattribution errors. Moreover, older adults sometimes do not expect to recall specific details of past experiences. Having low expectations for memory can create serious problems for the elderly and con artists know how to exploit this feature of elderly memory. One scam is called “Where’s the check?” Here con artists collect information from the elderly individual during a phone conversation. Then they call back the next day to assess whether the elderly individual has forgotten the conversation and would be likely to have forgotten other events. If so, the con artist makes a false claim about an incident that never occurred. For example, the con artist might say that he had received a check for $1100 from the elderly individual, when it should only have been for $911. Then he says that if he receives a check for the correct amount, $911, he will return the original check for $1100. Or the con artist might say, we have received a check from you for $1000, leaving a balance of only $500. Please send a check for $500 so we can close out the account. As the elderly individual does not remember the conversation, and does not expect to remember such conversations, he sometimes sends the check to avoid further complications. When provided with highly memorable information, older adults can invoke a distinctivemess heuristic as effective as younger adults to reduce false memories. Memory techniques such as those offered in this blog can not only reduce false memories, but can also build an effective memory and confidence in those memories so that such scams will not work.



© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Douglas] and [] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


3 Responses to “The Distinctiveness Heuristic”

  1. Ray Says:

    Distinctiveness heuristic: “a rule of thumb that leads people to demand recollections of distinctive details of an experience before they are willing to say that they remember it.”

    Hey, how about if you’re going to Copyright (you fancypants you) the information on this blog then you should at least give a half-assed parenthetical acknowledgement when you go quoting someone verbatim-give-or-take-a-word, without quotation marks–aHEM, Daniel Shocter, The Seven Sins of Memory, pp. 102-103 aHEM-aHEM–before some college kid doing his psychology homework calls you out on it.

    • healthymemory Says:

      The Distinctiveness Heuristic is is attributable to Kaheneman and Tversky, something that would have discovered had you bothered to read the blog post “Two Process Theory of Cognition” Also Shocter is spelled Shacter, and you would have found the Seven Sins of Memory cited in earlier posts.
      “Fancy Pants”

  2. Investigator in Toronto Says:

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