Take a moment to remember your 21st birthday or other milestone birthday, or first date with your current partner. These events are often remembered quite vividly in detail as they are typically emotional, salient, and have frequently been retold on numerous occasions. Would it surprise you that some of these seemingly vivid details can change in just a week when you retell your event? Perhaps on your first date your partner wore a red shirt and not a blue shirt, or maybe that first date actually took place at noon and not in the evening. Did you feel happy and excited or did you feel stressed and anxious? Through my research, these are exactly the type of changes I have found people make when retelling their memories just one week after their initial recollection.
This is because memory does not work like a video recorder. It does not offer unedited playback of each event we have experienced. Our memory of past events is actually more like a perpetually changing kaleidoscope, where details of memories of previous experiences are continually rearranged to form a momentarily suspended pattern of memories of a certain event only to be rearranged again for next retrieval. Our memory is dynamic and reconstructive (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce 2000). Our personality, experiences, motivation, emotion, social influences (Barnier, Sutton, Harris, & Wilson 2008), and general interpretation of how the world works all impact and colour our past each time we remember.
In our everyday life we do not need to recall precise details from every event. On the contrary, recalling every single detail would constrain our ability to draw conclusions, to rationalize, interpret events and meaning from the experience, and provide a coherent narrative. Our memory serves us by extracting the necessary information for different functional needs (Harris, Rasmussen, & Berntsen 2014). We remember to learn from the past and prepare for the future, to make sense of who we are, and to relate to the society we live in. When we forget details we have gaps in our memory. Those gaps are often filled in with the details that are most compatible with the story of our narrative. In the day-to-day context, we often do not notice that we or others misremember certain details. Does it really matter if someone was wearing a red shirt or blue shirt in most circumstances? In many conversational settings, it is usually the gist and coherence of the narrative rather than the accuracy of specific side details that is important (Koriat, Goldsmith, & Pansky 2000).
The complications arise when the accuracy of memory of an event is held to more stringent standards across different settings such as the forensic context (Barnier, Temler, & Sutton 2014). In the forensic context with its high demand for accuracy, variation in subsequent retellings can result in serious consequences such as innocent people being convicted. Eyewitness accounts, confessions, and alibi confirmations, all of which are based on autobiographical memories, are carefully monitored and diligently transcribed. Deviation across retellings is often seen as a sign of deception.
Our research indicates that variation in recounts of personal past events is normal and should be expected. We found that all participants made omissions, additions and contradictions in their narratives across retellings. There was variability from small to large changes and not everyone’s account changed in the same way. How do we then interpret variation in memory across retellings? We argue that an important way to measure changes in memory recall is to explore variation thresholds and individual susceptibilities to a variety of internal and external factors. My project aims to unearth new data and theory on the genuine baseline of distortion in autobiographical memory and the factors that contribute to it.