Making Memories More Accurate

Technological solutions may help increase some of the limits of memory, but we should also simply be aware that our intuitions might be wrong.
  • Transcript


Question: Can being aware of these kinds of cognitive illusions help us to be less selective in our attention? 

Christopher Chabris: The illusions that we talk about have one main thing in common.  Most of them are overestimations of our cognitive abilities or, another way of putting that is an under appreciation of some inherent limits on our cognitive abilities.  We don’t appreciate the limits on how much we can pay attention to it once and therefore we think we can multi-task better than we can.  We don’t appreciate the limits of what we actually store in memory and therefore we think our memories are more accurate than they are.  How do we solve this problem? 

Well, one would be raising those limits, or taking them away entirely.  Somehow enabling our brains to pay attention to more things at once or our memories to store things more accurately and retrieve them more accurately, and so on.  That might be technologically possible in some sense and in fact many technologies that we’ve invented over recorded history are designed to increase our cognitive limitation.  Why do we write things down?  Because oral tradition is not as good a way of conveying information as written history.  We have lots of devices that enable us to do things like that better. 

So, technological solutions may help us to increase some of those limits, but there’s a fundamental problem that sort of gets in the way of that which is that we have these illusions, or sort of false intuitions about those limits in the first place, so really what people can do and what they ought to do is think a little bit more about how their intuitions about the mind might be wrong.  Sort of take to heart some of the examples that we talk about and not be so certain of themselves and not be so angry at other people who might be suffering from these illusions that affect all of us rather than being malicious or having some other bad motives.

What are the implications of these types of cognitive errors for the criminal justice system?

Christopher Chabris: The American legal system is one which makes a lot of sort of assumptions and common sense... and uses a lot of common sense beliefs about how the mind works in its own procedures.  For example, eyewitness testimony is thought to be an extremely high valued form of testimony.  If someone says, "I saw that guy do it,"  that’s about the strongest testimony you can get.  In fact, other kinds of evidence is sort of sometimes derisively labeled circumstantial, as though that’s somehow worse than eyewitness testimony. 

But what research over decades by many psychologists have shown is that eyewitness testimony is in many ways, less than it’s cracked up to be because eyewitnesses are just as fallible as the rest of us in terms of how their memories work.  And they’re just as unlikely to notice things; they’re just as likely to distort them in their memory over time.  There have been many cases were eyewitness testimony convicted someone, they went as far as death row, and were exonerated by DNA evidence.  And it was found that someone else did it.  In cases where the witness was incredibly confident on the stand and this is a place where memory and confidence illusions interplay.  If someone thinks their memories more accurate than they are, and they’re really poised and confident and convincing on the witness stand, then you’re in trouble if you’re the defendant who didn’t do it.  And the synergy between those illusions can really be powerful in the case of the legal system. 

The legal system in my opinion, needs to sort of come to grips more with the way the mind actually works and the kinds of beliefs that we have about the mind which aren't actually true and maybe rely a little less somehow on common sense and a little more on scientific evidence about how the mind works.

Recorded on May 13, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen