Memory Errors and You: Navigating College with a (Sometimes) Deceptive Mind

By Trevor Foster and Emily Wilson

So, you’re an incoming college freshman; if you are like most people your age, you will be entering into a completely new environment – both socially and academically. In such periods of drastic change, you might notice yourself beginning to not do as well in school as you’ve grown accustomed to, or you might find yourself forgetting things more often with this newfound freedom. Some of these changes might be due to errors in memory. A 1988 study by W. Scott Terry found that among the most commonly forgotten things are forgetting to deviate from your habits and forgetting to do some future task (1). However, memory errors cover much more than simply forgetting! This blog post will introduce some of the most common types of memory errors, and it will offer some possible tips on avoiding them.

Before jumping into the complicated stuff, let us give you the low-down on memory. Sensory memory is the first step of storing information. This information gets dismissed or passed on to short term memory, where it is held for a bit longer. If the information is important enough, it’ll be passed on to long term memory, which holds a large amount of information for an extended period of time. Specific types of explicit long-term memory include episodic, semantic, and autobiographical. Specific types of implicit long-term memory include conditioning and procedural memory. Simple, right?

Wrong! Memory is not exact. Memories can be altered in many different ways that we will discuss later on (2).

Now that we have covered some of the relevant vocabulary for memory, we can begin looking at memory in general to discuss how it is susceptible to having mistakes. One generally accepted definition of a memory error is “a subjective falsification by addition, omission, or substitution, in the recall of past experience” (3).

Types of Memory Errors:

The first type of memory errors that we will discuss are those that arise out of Gestaltism. Gestaltism, or Gestalt Psychology is an approach to psychology that relies on the theory of pragnanz, which states that the perception of a stimulus will be organized into as cohesive of a figure as possible (4). Gestaltism could very easily be the subject of a blog post of its own, but, for the sake of brevity, it will not be discussed in great detail here. Instead, we will focus on how Gestaltism relates to the topic of memory errors.  This type of memory error occurs when memories get reduced to increasingly simplistic representations as time goes on. This type of memory error is exemplified by Wulf’s 1922 study in which he found that participants’ memories of “visual forms” became increasingly regular and symmetrical over time (3). However, this type of memory error can also relate to studying in general, and the general reduction/simplification of topics.

A second type of memory error arises because memory is a constructive process that is guided by schemas, which are “cognitive frameworks” through which people interpret experiences (3). Multiple studies have shown how a person’s schema can alter how he or she remembers a certain event or study. None is more well-known or famous than Bartlett’s “War of the Ghosts” experiment. In this experiment, Bartlett told participants an old Native American folktale, and asked them to recall the story at various time intervals. Bartlett found that as time went on, the memories of his participants changed the story to be more relatable to their own schemas (3).

Yet another type of memory error that can occur is a relatedness error. In this type of memory error, memories about things that are related to each other get confused with one another. Underwood’s 1965 experiment excellently exhibits this type of memory error. In this experiment, Underwood had participants study a set of words and later take a recognition test. Underwood found that participants were more likely to mistakenly “remember” seeing a word that was not presented if it was related to word that was presented (3). In fact, similar results were found for words that were semantically unrelated (unrelated in meaning) but similar in sound, in Conrad’s 1964 study (3). One way of accounting for this type of memory error would be Underwood’s “implicit activation response hypothesis,” which states “that when subjects encode words, they think of semantic associates to those words during study” (5). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this type of memory error was found to fairly prominent in first grade students in a recent study done by Seamon, et. al.; what should be more surprising, however, is that college students were similarly susceptible to this type of memory error as first graders (5). This type of memory error is most likely the most relevant to you as a college student, since it has been shown to affect your peers, and because you very often will be studying related terms.

A final type of memory error is known as imagination inflation. You know when you’re telling someone a story and get carried away until a minor stumble on the sidewalk, for example, becomes a life or death situation? That’s called imagination inflation. This can have a range of results on memory, from a slight increase in confidence that an event occurred, all the way to a completely false recollection of the event (6).

Ways to avoid memory errors:

A study conducted by Merrin Creath Oliver, Rebecca Brooke Bays, and Karen M. Zabrucky offers a promising tactic to help prevent false memories. In this study, 102 undergraduate students were shown five lists of rhyming words and five lists of related words. Half of these students were told to use imagery to help remember the words whereas the other half were not. After viewing the lists, the students were administered a recognition test. The results showed that the students who created detailed images in their head made less errors. Oliver, Bays, and Zabrucky attribute this to the fact that we aren’t good at judging the source of our memories because activation spreads to related items, resulting in memory errors. So, the next time you’re trying to memorize amino acids, stats equations, or your grocery list, try to form images of the words or items in your head (7).


(1) Terry, W. S. (1988). Everyday forgetting: Data from a diary study. Psychological reports, 62(1), 299-303.

(2) Goldstein, B. (2015). Cognitive psychology: connecting mind, research, and everyday experience. Cengage Learning.

(3) Roediger III, H. L. (1996). Memory illusions. Journal of memory and Language, 35(2), 76-100.

(4) Pragnanz. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2017, from

(5) Seamon, J. G., Luo, C. R., Schlegel, S. E., Greene, S. E., & Goldenberg, A. B. (2000). False memory for categorized pictures and words: The category associates procedure for studying memory errors in children and adults. Journal of Memory and Language, 42(1), 120-146.

(6) Schacter, D. L., Guerin, S. A., & St. Jacques, P. L. (2011). Memory Distortion: An Adaptive Perspective. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved April 21, 2017, from

(7) Oliver, M. C., Bays, R. B., & Zabrucky, K. M. (2016). False Memories and the DRM Paradigm: Effects of Imagery, List, and Test Type. The Journal of General Psychology, 143(1), 33-48.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.