Psychology is at its most interesting to me when it demolishes what we believe to be true on the basis of common sense, and it does this with alarming regularity. Take our memories. The act of remembering is something we do all the time, so we feel we have an innate understanding of how our memory works. But it is precisely this familiarity that leads us astray. Except for moments where we forget where we placed the keys, we are not privy to the many ways in which our memories let us down. Psychological experiments, however, can make those failures clear, and they have revealed that our memories are more incomplete, inaccurate and easily changed than we would like to think.
Daniel Simons from the University of Illinois and Christopher Chabris from Union College Schenectady have done a large survey to look at our misconceptions about memory. They asked a nationally representative sample of over 1,800 Americans to say how much they agree with various statements, and compared their answers to a small group of experts – professors, polled at a psychology conference, who had been studying memory for more than 10 years. This slideshow shows what they found.
On the whole, 60 percent of people agreed with statements that the experts almost totally rejected. These misconceptions can have severe consequences, when they influence the outcomes of court cases. As Simons and Chabris write, “This discrepancy between science and popular beliefs confirms the danger of relying on intuition or common sense when evaluating claims about psychology and the mind. Accordingly, scientists should more vigorously communicate established and uncontroversial results (alongside new and surprising findings) in a way that leads to broader public understanding.”