Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain or Anyone Around You

By Robert Dragani and Hannah Kaczala

No college student is a stranger to the stress of exams. But sometimes we get lucky, and after hours of cramming, you might find a question on an exam that you know you studied; you specifically remember it from the study session. You confidently answer and feel accomplished in your study skills. A few weeks later, when your professor finally hands back your graded exam, you are flabbergasted that the question you thought you nailed was marked incorrect. You crack open your textbook, because you’re sure you had it right. The book takes your teacher’s side and you wonder where in your learning you got mixed up. Does this sound familiar to you? If so, you might have fallen victim to what psychologists call the Misinformation Effect.  

Memory is inherently unreliable. We might think of memories as the movies inside our minds that tell us about our own life history, but how sure are we of their accuracy? Unfortunately, our memories are not written in stone and our brains do not act like tape recorders. If they did, perhaps college students wouldn’t need to pull so many all-nighters.

College students in their natural habitat while studying through the night; staying warm and preparing much needed caffeine.

Ever learn something new and think, “I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it,” only to completely forget later? It happens to all of us. Just as easily as this happens, our memory of an important detail of an event can change given post-event information. This is the phenomenon known as the misinformation effect and was first proposed by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus. One of her initial experiments in 1975 showed college students at the University of Washington a video of a car accident. After the video, she asked students questions about what occurred. The first group was asked how fast they thought the white sports car was going when it passed a barn. The second group was asked how fast they thought the white sports car was going when it drove down the country road. There was never actually a barn depicted in the video, but when asked a week later if they had seen a barn, participants that had been asked about a barn were 15% more likely to answer that they had seen the barn than those who were not(1). With this experiment and many others to follow, Loftus and her colleagues began to collect evidence that our memories are more subject to change than we typically believe.

Young Frankenstein (1974) Dr. Frankenstein can’t recall which side Igor’s hump is actually on

So, how does this old psychological study about memories affect you as an incoming student? Well, throughout your time in college you may very well experience retroactive interference, the driving force behind the misinformation effect. Retroactive interference is the theory that new information can interfere with the memory of previously learned information. This effect can actually change what we believe occurred when asked to recall it later on (2). Think of it like someone touching Play-Doh after you’ve finished shaping it-it won’t stay the same way you left it. This can take shape in the form of leading questions or false information presented to us about the event after it occurred, often referred to as misleading post-event information (MPI)(3).   

Depicted above shows how MPI, through retroactive interference, can actually alter original learning later on.

As college students, we all know how stressful studying can be. Often we take notes during lecture, then wait until a few days before the exam to begin reviewing. This is where the misinformation effect can be dangerous. In order to save time, many students review using online resources made by peers on study websites such as Quizlet. Unfortunately, the internet is teeming with incorrect “facts”. Finding your question on a platform like Yahoo! Answers might provide you with a quick answer, but not necessarily a credible one, and it has the possibility to skew your memory of learning the correct information. We’ve all heard the saying “Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true,” right?  Well, even if we keep that in mind, it can still influence our memories. 

Even group study sessions may be misleading. For example, if one of your classmates answers a study question incorrectly, it can actually alter your memory of initially learning the information. You might remember your professor saying the incorrect information, even though it never happened, leading to your confidence in the wrong answer. Fiona Gabbert and associates provided evidence of this in their 2004 study in which participants were given misinformation about a simulated video of a crime. Some participants were fed the misinformation through verbal discussion while others were given it in a written narrative.  The results of their study showed that people were more likely to incorporate the misinformation into their memory of the event if the MPI was presented socially as opposed to through written means(4). So even without the internet interfering in your studies, the misinformation effect is still a clear and present danger.

In Dr. Daniel Schachter’s book The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, he describes seven “sins” commonly committed that lead to memory errors. The first three sins are “sins of omission” that result in forgetting. However, misattribution and suggestibility are “sins of commission”, meaning that these are involved in the distortion or alteration of memories. These two processes are especially responsible in the misinformation effect.  Misattribution occurs when you mistake the source of a memory. For example, you might misattribute a non-fact you read from a Yahoo! Answers post to your textbook, or your classmate’s confident but misguided answer to a review question as something your professor said. Suggestibility occurs when leading questions cause a witness to think about the incident in a particular light, thereby reshaping their recollection of the event(5). 

The key to countering the misinformation effect is to be sure of your sources when studying.  Question everything. Do not take any information for granted. Your textbook is an example of a trustworthy source. Instead of asking the general public on the internet, ask your professor or teaching assistant questions directly. Record your professor’s lectures using the voice memo function of your smartphone so you can go back and listen to them again. Go to office hours.  If you want to study using notecards or a study guide, get the information directly from a trustworthy source, such as your textbook.

Or Chuck Norris.


References:

(1)Loftus, 1975, Leading questions and the eyewitness report, Cognitive Psychology, 7 (1975)

(2)Dewar, M.T., Cowan, N. & Sala, S.D. Forgetting due to retroactive interference: a fusion of Müller and Pilzecker’s (1900) early insights into everyday forgetting and recent research on anterograde amnesia. Cortex 43, (2007).

(3)Belli, R.F. 1989. Influences of misleading postevent information: Misinformation interference and acceptance. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 118

(4)Gabbert, F., Memon, A., Allan, K. and Wright, D. B. Say it to my face: Examining the effects of socially encountered misinformation. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 9, (2004)

(5) Schacter, D. L. (2001). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

5 Replies to “Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain or Anyone Around You”

  1. This thoroughly explained why memories can get messed up when it can come to test-taking. Many times, I confidently think something is right, only to find out later that I was totally wrong. It was interesting to see the science behind the misinformation effect, and how people can sometimes be so sure of themselves when really they don’t know as much as they think they do.

    Aileen Tierney

  2. This was a very interesting Blog that really grasped onto me as a student. I have fallen victim to this many times throughout my educational career. When reading through this I kept thinking of situations where this had occurred to me and what I could’ve done to avoid situations of misinformation. I am a victim of listening to the internet and to fellow classmates when it comes to studying and it is nice to really understand that this type of studying is not helpful for you when it comes to getting the right information. I felt that this is a great thing for incoming freshman to know and a great blog for them to read before starting their group studies and online searches.

  3. This was a really good post! I liked that you guys used information and concepts from class to connect them to ways of studying. I have fallen victim to the misinformation effect many times. I remember being sure that I knew the answer to many exam questions only to have gotten them wrong after being graded. To this day, I still cram for exams which doesn’t help me pass them at all. I like the idea of recording lectures and going to office hours. as a freshman in a new environment many students don’t like to see professors or may be intimidated. Professors are usually very nice and like when student seek help during office hours. I gives students a better understanding of what happened in class and gives them the opportunity to ask questions if they felt uncomfortable asking during class time. Great job guys!

  4. Overall concise and well-written analysis of the misinformation effect. Unfortunately for me, the example presented in the text regarding the effect was all too relatable. This post certainly takes on challenges that have been presented to all of us at one point or another in our academic careers. A college freshman would most certainly thank you for your in depth analysis of the subject.
    -Brennan

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