Memory biases: Why your memories aren’t as reliable as they seem

Do you ever feel like your memory plays tricks on you? Well, it can. If you find it difficult to remember what you had for breakfast, where you left your keys, or what someone’s name is, you might be one of the many folks who suffer from memory biases.

While memory biases are powerful in altering how you remember things, they can still be tamed. The first step is to assess the issue — to learn what memory biases are and how they affect your memories. Then, make some simple changes in your habits, such as taking notes and training your brain to think differently, to counteract the effects of memory biases and remember things more effectively and clearly.

What is a memory bias?

Memory biases are cognitive biases that either enhance or impair how you remember something. Your mood, thoughts, and intentions can all play a part in distorting your memories. Memory biases can occur with positive as well as negative stimuli — and aren’t exclusive to each other.

How does memory work?

To understand how memory biases work, we first need to understand how memory works. Your memory, the ability to recall facts and events that have already occurred, comes down to three stages:

  1. Encoding: First, we observe and take information in. It usually involves processing visual, audio, and semantic (or meaning) components.
  2. Storage: We then take encoded information and store it in our brains. Our working memory, or short-term memory, is very limited: it can hold about seven items at once for 20 to 30 seconds. Our long-term memory capacity, though, is theoretically unlimited. (That doesn’t mean that we remember everything in our long-term memory accurately, though.)
  3. Retrieval: Finally, we recall stored information. This is usually where the most problems occur and result in retrieval failure — when you can’t remember something well or even at all.

Think of memories like compressed zip files stored on the hard drive that is your brain. You organize your memories so that you can recall them later via retrieval cues — “folders” per se. These cues serve as prompts that trigger your brain to recall things via association, making it easier to decompress and reconstruct those fuzzy memories.

However, if you’ve improperly encoded and stored your memories, the memory files might corrupt when you try to unzip them — and that’s where your memory biases step up to fill in the blanks. Memory biases act as filters for the screenshots of your memories, and as your brain applies more and more memory bias filters, sometimes your memories can turn into completely different photos.

There are many different types of memory biases

There are not just one but dozens of kinds of memory biases based on how they impact your memory. Here are a few of the main ones:

  • Confirmation bias: We tend to look for, interpret, and remember information in a way that aligns with and confirms our own beliefs and hypotheses. One 2015 study showed that people tend to remember information better when it aligns with their existing beliefs.
  • Rosy retrospection bias: We think about the past in a more favorable light than the present. For example, people may remember the “good ol’ days” that weren’t actually that great.
  • Choice-supportive bias: We remember the choices we made as being better than the ones we didn’t. An example is how consumers may look for reasons to retroactively justify impulse purchases and bend their memories in the process.
  • Hindsight bias: We’re inclined to view things that already happened as predictable (“I knew it all along”). Studies show people are more likely to display overconfidence in hindsight.
  • Egocentric bias: We remember things in a way that relies too heavily on our own perspective. We can recall things more easily when they match our own experiences, ideas, and beliefs. We exaggerate our own contributions, like the way everyone thinks they completed a greater percentage of a group project than everyone else.
  • Picture superiority effect: We are more likely to recall more information if it’s presented with a picture. This is why video marketing and infographics are so effective; research proves that audiences remember visuals better than text.
  • Primacy/Recency effect: We remember things that we see first or last better than things in the middle. On a final exam, you can answer questions about more recent topics on your syllabus better than ones from the middle of the semester.
  • Misinformation effect: Our memory of past events can be contaminated by exposure to false information. For example, eyewitnesses can misremember the events of a crime if they talk to other eyewitnesses in the aftermath of the event.
  • Illusory truth effect: We remember things as true when we hear them again and again. This is part of the reason urban legends are so persistent, even if they’ve been disproven — like the myth of alligators living in the sewers of New York City or the belief that you should take Vitamin C when you have a cold.

How to overcome memory biases

The first step to overcoming memory bias is knowing that you can’t just rely on your memory, no matter how good you think it is. If you want to remember something, you have to document or record it in a way that circumvents any biases you may impose on that memory later. In other words: Write it all down!

You can “write it down” in a number of ways:

  • Record audio or video while you take notes on a lecture or meeting. Later, you can refer back to the recording to fill in any gaps in your notes and help you remember details you may have forgotten or jotted down incorrectly.
  • Journal regularly to document how you feel about certain things that happen in your life. Writing things down while they’re still fresh in your mind can prevent the distortion of those memories in the future.
  • Create reminders on your phone or calendar for events you want to remember instead of relying on your brain to remember for you.
  • If you’re reading or judging a list of things, e.g., job candidates or Google search results, be aware of the order. Don’t just look at the first or last items; pay equal attention to the ones in the middle. If the list is digital, consider scrambling the order to combat the primacy and recency effects, especially if you’re using the list to make an important decision.
  • When you’re doing research, use a tool like Heyday to automatically save content you see while in the flow of work so your ideas can be resurfaced later.

To increase your odds of winning the fight against memory biases, you’ll want to try solutions that only require a little energy.

Reduce your memory biases with these resources

The better we understand how the types of memory work, the better we can help our brain to perform to the best of its abilities. Learn more in the articles below:

Josh Chapman

Content marketer who specializes in SEO-optimized articles for SaaS companies.