Memory is accurate, right?

Credit: (c) Image: the-lightwriter/iStock


A few years ago while taking a sociology course at Memorial University, my class learned about this concept called "cognitive dissonance"- which was coined by Leon Festinger sometime during the twentieth century. Festinger argued that we recall memory, but it's not necessarily accurate. Furthermore, we also constantly justify our actions as human beings. Of course our recollection could be completely inaccurate, but our brain's convince us that whatever event we are trying to to remember, actually happened. This article will illustrate an understanding of why we justify our actions, memory bias, and how it works.

I didn't make a mistake, did I?

Festinger introduced the term cognitive dissonance in 1957, through which this concept describes behaviour among individuals involving the sustainment of inconsistent thoughts. For human beings, such inconsistent thoughts paired with cognitive dissonance often determine the perception of others, as well as the external world. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson describe dissonance:

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions- especially the wrong ones- is the unpleasant feeling Festinger called “cognitive dissonance." A state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent. (Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) )

Memory Bias, and Justification:

Tavris and Aronson’s book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) discusses the issue of justification for human behaviour. Moreover, as a construct of human nature we often create excuses in order to justify or explain our own mistakes. For instance, my girlfriend and I decided to go bowling at Plaza Bowl a few years ago (this refers to to a local bowling alley), whereas the previous year I won two consecutive game and applied my victory to superior athletic abilities. However, during our most recent bowling adventure (keep in mind, this was long before COVID-19) my girlfriend defeated me in two consecutive games. In saying that, my cognitive response to my loss was that I was not feeling well so I was unable to defeat my girlfriend. With respect to dissonance, my reluctance to admit the fact that I had lost two games of bowling directly applies to Festinger’s theory.

Credit: (c) Wii Sports, 2006

Tavris and Aronson emphasize the inability for human beings to admit their own mistakes, so we as individuals seek justification for our actions. Thus, following my loss to my girlfriend at bowling I placed myself not feeling well at fault. Although I admit my loss during two games of bowling, from my personal example I faced difficulty admitting this to myself due to my victory in previous years. With the subject of dissonance, I was unwilling to admit that my loss was strongly contributed by my girlfriend playing a better game.

Credit: (c) SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-)

So, what is memory bias?

With the issue of human memory, individuals wish to recollect specific events as precisely as possible. However, Tavris and Aronson illustrate that memory recollection is not always accurate, such that memories from an early age occasionally result with disputes in terms of accuracy. Tavris and Aronson suggest:

Memory: how disorienting it is to realize that a vivid memory, one full of emotion and detail, it is indisputably wrong; how even being absolutely, positively sure a memory is accurate does not mean that it is; and how errors in memory supports our current feelings and beliefs (Tavris and Aronson)

Human beings recall memories based on significance, and in the event these memories are proven inaccurate human beings are reluctant to admit such failed attempts at remembering a situation. Furthermore, memories specifically drawn from an early age are not necessarily as accurate as one would believe. Nevertheless, human beings convince themselves these memories are accurate throughout life due to the importance of the person with whom the memory is shared.

In many instances, people express fond memories with a loved one. However, individuals experience strong feelings of disbelief when a particular memory is proven to be inaccurate. With respect to memory recall and dissonance, people often insist personal memories are accurate because these memories have been contained throughout life and serve a vital importance to them. However, sometimes they are wrong.

Credit: (c) Sister, Sister (1994-99)

From a personal perspective, I have various memories which involve memory bias. Keep in mind, a lot of memories we have didn't exactly happen the way we recall. That's just how the human brain works.

My mother has a striking resemblance to my maternal grandfather’s sister, for instance. Moreover, the woman I'm referring to is my great-aunt. Considering that I have the ability to somewhat recall this memory, I must have been about three or four years old when this actually happened. My great-aunt and my mom are just nine years apart, such that my great-aunt would have been forty-three when my mom was thirty-four.

Drawing from one of my earliest memories, I recall my mom reading a story to me before bed one night. However, years later I found a photograph from this moment and it was actually my great-aunt, reading the story. My personal example of dissonance recalls this moment as my mom reading the story to me due to the close bond I have with her- being an only child.

Credit: (c) Family Guy (1999-2002, 2005-)

Note from the author:

Interestingly, my own concept of memory bias kicked-in when I found the photograph of my great-aunt reading me a story, instead of my mom. Although my own memory attempts to convince me that my mom was reading the story, an old photograph proves otherwise. In terms of Festinger's theory, our brain's allows us to believe something when it holds significance to us. Clearly, he wasn't wrong.

As always, thanks for the support


The Modernist Son, 2020-


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