This post is based on Julia Shaw’s book “The Memory Illusion.” Julia Shaw is a criminal psychologist. Consequently, she is concerned with the accuracy of witnesses and the confidence that witnesses have in their testimony. As witnesses are human beings, like most, if not all, humans we are overconfident in our memories. She conducted research regarding whether or not British police officers knew more about memory and other psychological processes than members of the general public. She distributed a 50-item questionnaire and found that, overall, the police had as many misconceptions about issues in psychology and the law as the general public, but that they were more confident in their responses. 14% endorsed the myth that “Memory is like a video camera and 18% believed that “People cannot have memories of things that never actually happened.”
Dr Shaw then goes on to briefly summarize the outstanding work of “The Innocence Project, which is an organization dedicated to getting innocent people exonerated through DNA testing. Its research has helped to release at least 337 people who were wrongfully convicted. On the average these people served 14 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Faulty memory played a role in at least 75% of the cases. These figures are just for the US, so worldwide the problem is much larger.
There are cases in which police need to close a case and are more concerned with getting a conviction than finding the guilty person (See the healthy memory blog , “Why False Confessions Trump Evidence”). The natural biases of memory can cause police to develop “tunnel vision” and fail to consider relevant evidence. As Dr. Shaw writes, “when we need to make sense of an event but do not have enough information to do so, we tend to import other plausible content to fill in the gaps. Events in our minds need to have a linear progression, connections, reasons. Once we have this kind of plausible narrative, we can become incredibly confident in its accuracy. But what exactly is the relationship between confidence and accuracy, and how does it all tie in with memory.
Remember Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon, where all the children were above average? This phenomenon is not unique to Lake Wobegon. Most of us humans regard themselves as being above average. Research has found this overconfidence effect in all kinds of areas. Dr. Shaw writes, “Police are overconfident in their ability to detect liars. Students are overconfident about their course grades. CEOs are overconfident in their business decisions. Teachers are overconfident in their teaching ability.” In a 2011 article published in “Nature,” social scientists Dominic Johnson and James Fowler argued that “Humans exhibit many psychological biases, but one of the most consistent, powerful and widespread is overconfidence.”
Dr Shaw suggests “that we have a tendency to overestimate our positive qualities and to underestimate our negative traits. This is a characteristic that is inherently linked to memory, because in order to think about our positive traits we need to be able to remember the good things we have done in our lives that provide evidence of those traits. For example, you may think about all the times you have done chores around the house, and think to yourself you are a really good spouse. You took out the trash, bought groceries, cooked, and did the dishes. However, you may be forgetting or diminishing the times when you did not do any of those things and actually made more work for your spouse, leaving her frustrated and with extra work to do.”
There is at least one more illusion that might play into our tendency to be overconfident. This illusion is related to the greater strength and accessibility of our memories to our own actions and insights compared to those of others. This is the illusion of asymmetric insight. Emily Pronin and her colleagues at Stanford University published a paper on this bizarre bias titled, “you don’t know me, but I know you.”
The team found over six studies showing that we think we know close friends and roommates better than they know us. Research participants were told that we are all like icebergs, with part of our true selves being observable by others and part hidden from view. The participants were then asked to pick a picture of an iceberg that best represented their friend from a selection showing icebergs at various levels of subversion. Then the participants did the reverse task, thinking about how their friend would answer these same questions about them. The different studies used this same methodology but for different types of relationships.
“Pronin and her team found that participants believed that their own quintessential qualities, including their intimate thoughts and feelings, were mostly kept internal but that those of others were more likely to be observable. They were more submerged icebergs, while other people were more visible icebergs. This make sense from a memory perspective because we have direct access to our own thoughts and feeling and so appreciate that they can be complicated and nuanced—which makes them difficult for other people to understand. On the other hand, it can be difficult or even impossible to appreciate the complexity of the thoughts and feelings of others in other than a basic ‘surface’ way—we tend towards assuming that is all that there is to understand. Our general outlook is “I’m a riddle, but my friend is an open book.”
This phenomenon of asymmetric insight is ubiquitous. Liberals and conservatives each thinks they understand the other part better than the other party understands them.
We all need to be aware of the fallibility of our memories and our overconfidence in our fallible memories.