Your memory of an event is unique.
If you experience something, whether it be as benign as watching a movie in the cinema, or as traumatic as being in a bank when it is raided by masked gunmen, your memory of that event will be unique.
Your memory of watching a movie will be vastly different even from that of the person sitting next to you. Although you are watching the same film from more or less the same place, you each bring your pasts to bear on your interpretation of the movie. It is your subjective interpretation of what you see and hear which has a chance of being encoded into memory, not the facts about what actually happened in front of you.
Not only do we experience everything slightly differently because of our different interpretations, but we are more likely to remember parts of the film which are particularly salient to us. And we all have different pasts and interests, making different aspects more important to different people. If I am into dogs, then I am more likely to remember details about any dogs which may have been shown. If you are into football you may remember the team colours that someone was wearing.
Different pasts mean we not only experience an event differently, but we also place differing levels of importance on any given aspect. These both result in our memories of the same event being potentially vastly different.
Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.
Photo: UA Stonestown Twin via photopin (license)
In 1959 Festinger and Carlsmith asked the participants in their experiment to complete an extremely boring couple of tasks for an hour. Each participant was then offered money to lie to the next one and say that they would find the task really interesting and enjoyable. They were offered either $1 or $20.
After they had told their lies the participants were interviewed to find out how interesting and enjoyable they had really found the tasks. Those who had only been paid $1 to lie to the other participant reported finding the tasks much more enjoyable than those who had been paid $20.
The cause of this strange discrepancy is something called cognitive dissonance – the uncomfortable feeling of inconsistency in our thoughts and behaviours. Our brain doesn’t like to think of us as inconsistent, so it will do what it can to avoid it.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as liars because we are brought up to believe that lying is bad. But the participants were asked to lie to another person and tell them that they would find a really boring task interesting. They didn’t like to think of themselves as liars, but they did lie, and this caused cognitive dissonance.
The participants who were paid $20 could justified their lies by telling themselves that they did it for the money. This reduced their cognitive dissonance. Those who were only paid $1 couldn’t really justify their lies the same way as $1 is such a paltry sum. Instead they reduced the dissonance by convincing themselves that the tasks weren’t so bad. If they believed the tasks were interesting then they weren’t lying and there was no cognitive dissonance.
This sort of change in our attitudes is happening all the time every day. Our minds are constantly making small adjustments to our beliefs and opinions to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of cognitive dissonance.