Flickr credit: Rameshng

Are confident memories accurate ones?

Andy DeSoto
May 7, 2013 · 2 min read

A lot of what I write about in the Behavioral Research and Technology collection involves research of folks other than me or sometimes even just speculation and theory. Yesterday’s article about police lineups, though, encouraged me to write a bit about some work I’ve conducted investigating the relationship between confidence and accuracy in memory.

The basic form of the question I’m interested in is, “When people remember with greater confidence, are they also remembering more accurately?” It should seem like a no-brainer — of course confidence and accuracy are strongly related. The two go hand in hand.

In reality, though, the topic is much trickier. In a chapter I co-wrote with two senior colleagues, we discuss how the relationship between confidence and accuracy can be investigated in many different ways and through multiple different analyses (Roediger, Wixted, & DeSoto, 2012).

One of the most interesting parts of the chapter reminds us that there are sometimes instances in which memory illusions occur. To give an example, in some of my work, experimental participants (often college undergraduates) study lists of words taken from common categories. In the birds category, for instance, participants may study the words bluejay, raven, canary, and cardinal.

It turns out that if you later ask participants if they studied the word eagle, they often and confidently report “yes,” even though they never did. Even more, if you take a look at the relation between confidence and accuracy for these unstudied category words (like eagle), you often find a negative relationship between confidence and accuracy — meaning that the more confident an individual is in remembering that word, the less likely he or she is to correctly respond that the word was never studied.

I bet you never knew there were situations in which higher confidence was indicative of lower accuracy in memory! I have a paper discussing this topic in more detail that’s currently in press with an academic journal. I’ll have more to say when that work hits the shelves.

Human Behavior and Technology

An intersection of cognitive psychology and other behavioral disciplines with observations about technology. New submissions should contain both (1) a bit of empirical data and (2) a lot of serious thinking.

    Andy DeSoto

    Written by

    I'm a cognitive psychologist. I write about behavioral science, technology, local business, and baseball. All views are my own.

    Human Behavior and Technology

    An intersection of cognitive psychology and other behavioral disciplines with observations about technology. New submissions should contain both (1) a bit of empirical data and (2) a lot of serious thinking.

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