Daniel Schacter's Seven Sins of Memory
Daniel Schacter is a researcher, a cognitive psychologist, and a psychology professor at Harvard University. He carried out a study that concluded that our memory is prone to fail in seven ways. Schacter calls these malfunctions the “seven sins of memory”.
Schacter explains that the process of remembering and recovering memories is a constructive activity. He points out that human memory isn’t perfect at all. In fact, the system has its deficiencies and memory deficiencies affect us all in our daily lives.
In his book The Seven Sins of Memory, Schacter systematically classifies various memory malfunctions (sins) into seven fundamental transgressions: transience, misattribution, blocking, absent-mindedness, suggestibility, bias, and persistence.
Schacter established that these memory malfunctions should be conceptualized as byproducts of desirable characteristics of human memory.
Moreover, he emphasizes that there’s evidence that memory satisfies the needs of the present while the past is remodeled with current knowledge, beliefs, and emotions. Schacter pointed out that memory distortions are as fascinating as they are important, that said sins manifest frequently in everyday life and aren’t signs of any pathology. However, they often have undesirable consequences.
The seven sins of memory
Daniel Schacter states that memory malfunctions can be divided into seven fundamental sins. On one hand, there are the sins of omission, which come from failing to remember an idea, a fact, or an event (memory recovery). Among them, we have transience (general deterioration of a specific memory over time), absent-mindedness (attention failures that lead to memory loss), and blocking (inability to retrieve information).
On the other hand, there are the sins of commission, which imply different types of distortions (cases where there are faults in the recovered memory). This may happen because it has been codified incorrectly, perhaps because we modified it without realizing it.
Among them, we have misattribution (attributing a memory to an incorrect source), suggestibility (implanted memories resulting from suggestions or misleading information), and bias (distorting effects of current knowledge, beliefs, and feelings in memory).
Schacter proposes a final sin, persistence, which has to do with intrusive and undesirable memories that we can’t eradicate.
Transience refers to a weakening, deterioration, or loss of a specific memory over time. In fact, the person is able to remember recent events much better than those from the past. This is a basic characteristic of memory, as well as the culprit of many memory issues.
Interference is what causes transience. There are two types of interference: proactive interference, when old information inhibits the ability to remember new information, and retroactive interference, when new information inhibits the ability to remember old information.
Absent-mindedness implies a malfunction in the interface between attention and memory. It involves problems related to the interaction of these two aspects.
Memory malfunctions due to distraction (losing your keys or forgetting an important appointment, for example) often occur because we’re focused on issues or concerns that end up distracting us, making us forget what we need to remember at that moment. This means that at the time of coding, the individual didn’t pay enough attention to what they needed to remember later on.
Blocking refers to a frustrated search for information that the individual is desperately trying to recover. It occurs when the brain tries to retrieve or encode information but another memory interferes.
This happens even when the person is paying attention to the task at hand and the memory they want to evoke hasn’t gone away. The curious aspect of blocking is that the individual realizes it when they unexpectedly recover the blocked memory hours or days later.
The sin of misattribution involves assigning a memory to the wrong source. It takes a correct collection of information and links it to an incorrect recollection of the source of that information.
Misattribution occurs when people incorrectly believe that an element is new when, in reality, it’s just perceptually or conceptually similar to another element they had previously encountered. It’s important to keep in mind that misattribution is much more common than most people realize and has serious implications in legal settings.
Suggestibility is somewhat similar to misattribution, only with the inclusion of an open suggestion. The sin of suggestibility refers to memories that are stored as a result of questions, comments, or important suggestions.
Suggestibility is the incorporation of erroneous information due to important questions or deceit.
Biases are retrospective distortions produced by current knowledge and beliefs. In this sin, one’s current feelings and worldview distort the memory of past events. It’s quite similar to suggestibility.
That being said, bias reflects our ability to significantly modify our memories without realizing it. We often rely on what we now know or believe in to unconsciously edit or rewrite our past experiences. This can lead to two things: a biased representation of a specific event or a biased representation of a prolonged period in the individual’s life that says more about how they feel now than what actually happened at that time.
It’s a memory malfunction that involves an ongoing recovery of disturbing information that we wanted to ignore. The persistent memory can make a person suffer from phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder. As a matter of fact, individuals may even commit suicide if their particular case becomes too disturbing and intrusive.
In other words, persistence refers to unwanted memories that people can’t forget, such as those that may be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. The sin of persistence implies the repetition of a memory that, due to its painful and disturbing particularity, the individual has tried to eradicate from their memory completely.
Although the sins of memory often seem like our enemies, they’re actually a logical consequence of how our mind works. The reason for this is that said sins are connected to the characteristics of memory that make it work well.
Therefore, as Schacter suggests, these sins aren’t mere inconveniences. On the contrary, they’re positive.
Thanks to his work, we now know that our memory resorts to the past to inform the present, how it preserves elements of present experiences for future references, and how it allows us to review the past on command. Therefore, we should see these sins of memory as elements that allow us to link our mind to the outside world.
“Experiences that we remember intrusively, despite desperately wanting to banish them from our minds, are closely linked to, and sometimes threaten, our perceptions of who we are and who we would like to be.”