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Cognitive Bias Codex

Cognitive Bias Codex. What should we remember? Part 1.

Table of Contents

We edit and reinforce some memories after the fact

Let’s talk about how our brain works and which brain processes are responsible for our memories. The first part of the series “Cognitive Bias Codexbecomes the topic of memories, which our brain alters and we remember not quite the information we originally received.

Spacing effect

The spacing effect demonstrates that learning is more effective when study sessions are spaced out. This effect shows that more information is encoded into long-term memory by spaced study sessions, also known as spaced repetition or spaced presentation, than by massed presentation (“cramming”).

The phenomenon was first identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus, and his detailed study of it was published in the 1885 book Über das Gedächtnis. Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie (Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology), which suggests that active recall with increasing time intervals reduces the probability of forgetting information. This robust finding has been supported by studies of many explicit memory tasks such as free recall, recognition, cued-recall, and frequency estimation (for reviews see Crowder 1976; Greene, 1989).

Researchers have offered several possible explanations of the spacing effect, and much research has been conducted that supports its impact on recall. In spite of these findings, the robustness of this phenomenon and its resistance to experimental manipulation have made empirical testing of its parameters difficult.


Suggestibility is the quality of being inclined to accept and act on the suggestions of others. One may fill in gaps in certain memories with false information given by another when recalling a scenario or moment. Suggestibility uses cues to distort recollection: when the subject has been persistently told something about a past event, his or her memory of the event conforms to the repeated message.

A person experiencing intense emotions tends to be more receptive to ideas and therefore more suggestible. Generally, suggestibility decreases as age increases. However, psychologists have found that individual levels of self-esteem and assertiveness can make some people more suggestible than others; this finding led to the concept of a spectrum of suggestibility.

Attempts to isolate a global trait of “suggestibility” have not been successful, due to an inability of the available testing procedures to distinguish measurable differences between the following distinct types of “suggestibility”:

  • To be affected by a communication or expectation such that certain responses are overtly enacted, or subjectively experienced, without volition, as in automatism.
  • Deliberately to use one’s imagination or employ strategies to bring about effects (even if interpreted, eventually, as involuntary) in response to a communication or expectation.
  • To accept what people say consciously, but uncritically, and to believe or privately accept what is said.
  • To conform overtly to expectations or the views of others, without the appropriate private acceptance or experience; that is, to exhibit behavioral compliance without private acceptance or belief.

Wagstaff’s view is that, because “a true response to [a hypnotic] suggestion is not a response brought about at any stage by volition, but rather a true non-volitional response, [and] perhaps even brought about despite volition”, the first category really embodies the true domain of hypnotic suggestibility.

Self-report measures of suggestibility became available in 2004, and they made it possible to isolate and study the global trait.

Funnily enough, hypnotic suggestibility is also a parameter of suggestibility.

Dr. John Kappas (1925-2002) identified three different types of suggestibility over the course of his life that contributed to better hypnosis:

Emotional suggestibility, a suggestible behavior characterized by a high degree of responsiveness to suggestion that influences emotions and limits physical body reactions; usually associated with hypnoid depth. Thus, the emotional suggestible learns more from inferences than from direct, literal suggestions.

Physical suggestibility – suggestible behavior characterized by a high degree of responsiveness to literal suggestions affecting the body and limited emotional responses; usually associated with cataleptic stages or deeper.

Intellectual suggestibility is a type of hypnotic suggestibility in which the subject fears being controlled by the operator and constantly tries to analyze, reject, or rationalize everything the operator says. With such a subject, the operator must give logical explanations for each suggestion and must allow the subject to feel that he is conducting the hypnosis himself.

However, it is unclear and inconsistent what suggestibility (i.e., the hypnosis factor) really is. It is both an indisputable variable and the factor that is most difficult to measure or control.

False memory

In psychology, a false memory is a phenomenon where someone recalls something that did not happen or recalls it differently from the way it actually happened. Suggestibility, activation of associated information, the incorporation of misinformation, and source misattribution have been suggested to be several mechanisms underlying a variety of types of false memory phenomena.

False memories are a component of false memory syndrome (FMS).

The false memory phenomenon was initially investigated by psychological pioneers Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud.

Freud was fascinated with memory and all the ways it could be understood, used, and manipulated. Some claim that his studies have been quite influential in contemporary memory research, including the research into the field of false memory. Pierre Janet was a French neurologist also credited with great contributions into memory research. Janet contributed to false memory through his ideas on dissociation and memory retrieval through hypnosis.

In 1974, Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer conducted a study to investigate the effects of language on the development of false memory. The experiment involved two separate studies.

In the first test, 45 participants were randomly assigned to watch different videos of a car accident, in which separate videos had shown collisions at 20 mph (32 km/h), 30 mph (48 km/h) and 40 mph (64 km/h). Afterwards, participants filled out a survey. The survey asked the question, “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” The question always asked the same thing, except the verb used to describe the collision varied. Rather than “smashed”, other verbs used included “bumped”, “collided”, “hit”, or “contacted”. Participants estimated collisions of all speeds to average between 35 mph (56 km/h) to just below 40 mph (64 km/h). If actual speed was the main factor in estimate, it could be assumed that participants would have lower estimates for lower speed collisions. Instead, the word being used to describe the collision seemed to better predict the estimate in speed rather than the speed itself.

The second experiment also showed participants videos of a car accident, but the phrasing of the follow-up questionnaire was critical in participant responses. 150 participants were randomly assigned to three conditions. Those in the first condition were asked the same question as the first study using the verb “smashed”. The second group was asked the same question as the first study, replacing “smashed” with “hit”. The final group was not asked about the speed of the crashed cars. The researchers then asked the participants if they had seen any broken glass, knowing that there was no broken glass in the video. The responses to this question had shown that the difference between whether broken glass was recalled or not heavily depended on the verb used. A larger sum of participants in the “smashed” group declared that there was broken glass.

In this study, the first point brought up in discussion is that the words used to phrase a question can heavily influence the response given. Second, the study indicates that the phrasing of a question can give expectations to previously ignored details, and therefore, a misconstruction of our memory recall. This indication supports false memory as an existing phenomenon.

Replications in different contexts (such as hockey games instead of car crashes) have shown that different scenarios require different framing effects to produce differing memories.


Cryptomnesia occurs when a forgotten memory returns without its being recognized as such by the subject, who believes it is something new and original. It is a memory bias whereby a person may falsely recall generating a thought, an idea, a tune, a name, or a joke, not deliberately engaging in plagiarism but rather experiencing a memory as if it were a new inspiration.

Cryptomnesia is more likely to occur when the ability to properly monitor sources is impaired. For example, people are more likely to falsely claim ideas as their own when they were under high cognitive load at the time they first considered the idea. Plagiarism increases when people are away from the original source of the idea, and decreases when participants are specifically instructed to pay attention to the origin of their ideas. False claims are also more prevalent for ideas originally suggested by persons of the same sex, presumably because the perceptual similarity of the self to a same-sex person exacerbates source confusion. In other studies it has been found that the timing of the idea is also important: if another person produces an idea immediately before the self produces an idea, the other’s idea is more likely to be claimed as one’s own, ostensibly because the person is too busy preparing for their own turn to properly monitor source information.

Source confusion

In psychology, the misattribution of memory or source misattribution is the misidentification of the origin of a memory by the person making the memory recall. Misattribution is likely to occur when individuals are unable to monitor and control the influence of their attitudes, toward their judgments, at the time of retrieval. Misattribution is divided into three components: cryptomnesia, false memories, and source confusion.

Source confusion is an attribute seen in different people’s accounts of the same event after hearing people speak about the situation. An example of this would be, a witness who heard a police officer say he had a gun and then that witness later says they saw the gun. Understanding the source of one’s memories is important to memory processes necessary for every day living. Memories arise both from perceptual experiences and from one’s thoughts, feelings, inferences, and imagination. Source monitoring theory postulates that memory errors occur when perceptual information is incorrectly attributed as being the source of a past experience. This may take place because one event shares the characteristics of another source. When a person has many sources of perceptual information about an event, their brain is easily able to evoke a memory of that event, even if they did not experience it, thus creating a misattributed memory.

In one particular case of source confusion, a female rape victim falsely accused a memory doctor of being her rapist. In this case, the doctor had made a television appearance seen by the female victim prior to her attack. The woman misattributed the doctor’s face with that of her attacker. An additional example of source confusion involves Ronald Reagan. In this instance, Ronald Reagan tells a story about a heroic pilot to whom he personally awarded a medal. However, he was actually recalling the story line from a theatrical production entitled “Wing and a Prayer”. However, he strongly believed that he was involved in the medal process to this war hero.

Misattribution of memory

For clarity, I propose to consider the misattribution of memory with the example of an experiment.

In one of the earliest studies involving misattribution, the Canadian cognitive psychologist Bruce Whittlesea presented subjects with a list of common words. Each word was briefly displayed to the subject. The task required the subject to judge whether a target word was semantically related to any word in the list. Unlike Whittlesea’s first experiment involving the recognition of target words, this study involved the manipulation of processing fluency through the conceptual context of the target word, rather than the physical context. After the subjects were given a brief moment to study the list of words, the subjects were presented with sentences that would contain a word that was capitalized at the end of the sentence that would have either been, or not been, from the previously presented list. The word at the end of the sentence was either highly predictable given the context of the sentence, for example: “The stormy seas tossed the BOAT”, or the end word was less predictable such as: “She saved her money and bought a LAMP”. The subjects were then required to state whether the capitalized end word had appeared, or not, on the previous list of words. If not, they were to respond by saying that the word was “new” versus it being “old”.

The study revealed that the new words that were highly predictable were more likely to be incorrectly identified as being previously seen, whereas the new words that were less predictable were not so identified. In fact, subjects actually named predictable words faster than they did unpredictable words. Whittlesea was able to conclude from this study that subjects misattributed their fast responses for highly predictable words as an indication that they had previously experienced the word whereas in fact, that was incorrect. As a result, the fluency of processing caused the subjects to misinterpret their quickness as a case of familiarity.

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