Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Epistemic Benefits of False Autobiographical Memories and Beliefs

Reece Roberts
Our previous post outlined the evidence for episodic memory being a constructive process, and one that plays a necessary role in our ability to imagine future scenarios. In this post, I hope to sketch out a framework directly relating our work on episodic simulation to one of the main topics of this project: false beliefs and memories.

The constructive nature of episodic simulation – whether it be remembering or imagining the future – allows for deeply rooted cognitive biases to play a role in these processes. In particular, biases that maintain (or increase) self-esteem have been shown to strongly modulate properties of episodic simulation. In the case of episodic memory, we tend to remember positive events in more detail than negative events, regard achievements as occurring more recently than failures when this is not case, and experience a more rapid loss of affect associated with negative events relative to positive events. Similar effects are observed when imagining the future: in the face of compelling evidence, we have a strong tendency to underestimate the probability of future negative events while overestimating the probability of positive future events.

An important finding related to these effects is that they interact with self-esteem, with high self-esteem individuals being far more likely to exhibit these positivity biases than individuals with low self-esteem. Indeed, it has long been argued that a feature of depression is a more accurate perception of reality. Taken together, these findings suggest that psychological stability is often prioritised at the expense of veridical memories and rational beliefs about the future, yet it is not clear whether these distorted beliefs and memories are “epistemically innocent”. Specifically, is it the case that maintaining such false beliefs and memories in any way facilitates the “acquisition and preservation of knowledge”? 

While it is difficult to imagine how these false beliefs and memories are epistemically innocent in any direct sense, it seems likely that they play an indirect (but important) role in knowledge acquisition in the sense that they provide the psychological benefits necessary for optimal cognitive functioning. Low self-esteem has been shown to be a strong predictor of subsequent development of depression, which is well known to cause a host of cognitive deficits including mnemonic and executive deficits, as well as an impairment in day-to-day functioning. Importantly, these deficits often remain even when depressive symptoms are in remission. Conversely, high self-esteem is associated with reduced levels of anxiety, which is associated with better cognitive performance

The framework outlined above shows how the constructive nature of episodic simulation enables the encoding, storage and retrieval of memories that are distorted so as to maintain self-esteem and optimal cognitive functioning. This same neural system is used to generate simulations of potential future scenarios, and cognitive biases also play a role in the beliefs we generate about our personal futures. I have suggested that in functioning to maintain self-esteem, these false memories and beliefs have (indirect) epistemic benefits. This framework is, at this stage, speculative and research is needed to determine if it is a viable way of thinking about the epistemic benefits of false beliefs and memories. In addition, the types of false beliefs and memories to which I refer above are most likely a very narrow set of the types of false beliefs and memory distortions that people generate. Nevertheless, hopefully this can generate some discussion about what is a very interesting topic.

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