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Survey tracks beliefs about memory

Aug. 3, 2011 at 5:37 PM

CHAMPAIGN, Ill., Aug. 3 (UPI) -- A U.S. survey shows many people think memory is more powerful, objective, accurate and reliable than decades of scientific research suggest.

In a telephone survey by University of Illinois researchers, 1,500 respondents were asked to respond to a series of statements about memory, a university release reported Wednesday.

Almost two-thirds said human memory was like a video camera that can record information precisely and accurately for later review. About half believed that once experiences are encoded in memory, the memories never change.

These views of memory are in contrast to consistent findings by psychologists that memory can be unreliable and even manipulated, the researchers said.

"We've known since the 1930s that memories can become distorted in systematic ways," UI psychology Professor Daniel Simons said. "We've known since the 1980s that even memory for vivid, very meaningful personal events can change over time."

"The fallibility of memory is well established in the scientific literature, but mistaken intuitions about memory persist," co-author Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College, said.

The survey's findings could have important implications for courtroom proceedings, the researchers said.

"Our memories can change even if we don't realize they have changed," Simons said. "That means that if a defendant can't remember something, a jury might assume the person is lying. And misremembering one detail can impugn their credibility for other testimony, when it might just reflect the normal fallibility of memory."

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