Home > Memory > Is Recalling Always Good?–The Possible Dangers of Recalling

Is Recalling Always Good?–The Possible Dangers of Recalling


The act of recalling–we do it so casually and frequently without much thought; whether it’s recalling questions from an exam when you are discussing with friends questions you couldn’t figure out, or subconsciously remembering what the acquaintance was like while hearing rumors about him/her. Recalling might not be all so good–at least not as much as we might think it is. We don’t usually question the accuracy of the information we take in. However, it turns out to be that the accuracy of information becomes important, especially after the act of recalling (retrieving any information from memory). Through recalling an event, we enhance our ability to take in new information relevant to the event; if the new information is an accurate account of the event, our accuracy on the memory of the event is enhanced, but if the information is misleading or wrong, we take in the misleading information into our memory as well as we do of an accurate event. In the case of discussing an exam question with a friend, if the friend gives you inaccurate information, your possibly accurate prior memory could be “overwritten” with the wrong information your friend just provided. And in the case of hearing a rumor about an acquaintance, you could have a positive memory about the person before, but because of the rumor, which might be right or wrong, your memory could paint a new picture of him/her over the positive image that you used to have. Without being aware, we are making ourselves susceptible to taking in misinformation through just a simple act of recall. This could become very problematic at times; especially in eyewitness testimonies where their account makes a huge impact on what could be decided in court.

There are many problems with the eyewitness testimony. Many psychologists have revealed numerous things that could go wrong when a witness gives an account on an event. Some of these things are: cross-racial identification difficulties, weapon focus (and less attention paid to the details of the criminal), distortion of memory caused suggestion (i.e., suggestibility) and misremembering the source of information (i.e., misattribution). “The Faulty Eyewitness” blog post provides a more detailed description on some of these factors that could lead to an inaccurate eyewitness account. A study by Chan et al. shows that act of recalling the event before possibly being provided with misinformation adds to the above problems (Chan et al., 2009).


(White & Case, 2012)

(White & Case, 2012)

Chan et al. conducted an experiment to test if the act of recalling would enhance the accurate retention of a witnessed event. Suggestibility was one of the major problems of the eyewitness testimony. This occurs when, for example, a policeman asks you questions such as “did you see the man with the gun?,” where it is implied that the man had the gun, when in reality, there may not have even been any gun in the scene. The eyewitness could be suggested into believing, and even changing the memory of the event in a way that he/she would remember the man holding the gun. The psychologists initially went in with the idea that retrieving information enhances memory. Many previous studies have shown the power of testing effects; the finding that long-term memory is strengthened when retrieving remembered information (Roediger and Pyc, 2012). And hence, Chan et al. wanted to test if recalling the event before such suggestions would allow for an eyewitness to become resistant to misinformation.

Chan et al. set up an experiment where they asked 36 young participants to watch an episode of a television program (the witnessed event), take a test on details about the video (recalling event), make them listen to an audio narrative describing the video (containing some misinformation) and finally, recall the information in the video again (Chan et al., 2009). Participants in the controlled condition were asked to do almost the same series of tasks, except the first test on the details of the event.

The experiment results contradicted their hypothesis. The results, to their surprise, showed that recalling prior to presentation of misinformation in fact, made eyewitnesses more susceptible to remembering the misinformation than making them resistant at all. They called this the “reversed testing effect.” Chan et al. proposed two possible explanations for this finding. One was that prior testing enhanced learning of new information (which they called, the insulation effect). The participants learned misinformation better when they were tested, than when not being tested. Another explanation they gave was that reconsolidation of the “activated” memory needed to take place. Presentation of misinformation during the reconsolidation process allowed them to encode the misinformation better.

This discovery reveals that in reality, eyewitnesses are more susceptible to remembering inaccurate information more than we may have thought (from previous eyewitness testimony studies). It is more likely that an eyewitness recalls the event once or a few times in preparation to answer questions from the officers; in which they are likely to be exposed to some kind of suggestibility (like in the above example: “did you see the man holding the gun?”). The “reversed testing effect” could be another major fault that contributes to inaccuracy of the eyewitness testimony.

(Learning Mind, 2013)

The beneficial effects of retrieval practice for our memory are well studied and well announced to the public. However, not many people are aware of the other side of the coin–the potential “dangers” that recalling could cause if we are not aware of the accuracy of information around us. The study by Chan et al. is important in that it makes us aware of side of recalling that we were not aware of–the potential “dangers” that it could cause if we are not aware of the accuracy of information around us. It teaches us that activating a particular memory could make it easier for it to become altered according to the new information presented. Since the brain is as equally as capable of “over-writing” the correct, previous memory with wrong and misleading information as it is with correct information, we need to be careful not to immerse ourselves in an environment that provides misleading information.


Links to blogs on related topics:

Testing Effect

Faulty Eyewitness Testimonies



Chan, Jason C.k., Ayanna K. Thomas, and John B. Bulevich. “Recalling a Witnessed Event Increases Eyewitness Suggestibility: The Reversed Testing Effect.” Psychological Science 20.1 (2009): 66-73.

Roediger, Henry L., and Mary A. Pyc. “Applying Cognitive Psychology to Education: Complexities and Prospects.” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 1.4 (2012): 263-65.

Schwartz, Rachel. “At the Innocence Network.” Innocence Network. Innocence Network Inc., 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2014. http://www.innocencenetwork.org/

Zaragoza, Maria S., and Sean M. Lane. “Source Misattributions and the Suggestibility of Eyewitness Memory.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 20.4 (1994): 934-45.

  1. Crime Killer
    October 19th, 2015 at 22:10 | #1

    I always find the linkage between psychology and criminal cases to be very interesting. Eyewitness testimony can be distorted in so many ways and it is interesting to read about this study that was done to support yet another reason why eyewitness testimony is not always very reliable. I found the Chan et al. study to be extremely interesting as I did not expect those results either. I would have thought that the lack of recalling the information would cause the information to not be so engraved in the memory and thus, more susceptible to misinformation and change. However, this clearly was not the case. It is odd because I myself have experienced my memories being altered after recalling them but I do not think about how vulnerable they are to new information. When recalling memories of past summers I have often found a friend or two telling a story insisting a certain event occurred. Although I was there at the scene, I do not remember the specific event occurring. Despite this, I listen to the story and when I recall the memory again later on, I find that I incorporate this new event when thinking of that memory. It was not there before, but after hearing a friend insisting it occurred, it is now involved in that specific memory. It is somewhat unfortunate that recalling an event and memory can make that memory so immune to misinformation. One would hope that their memories could stay intact after they have been encoded but unfortunately, this is not the case.
    In relation to eyewitness testimony and memory, this blog reminded me of Elizabeth Loftus and the misinformation effect. As you wrote about in your blog, the misinformation effect can intentionally lead subjects to make inaccurate reports after being exposed to misleading information. To examine this, Elizabeth Loftus conducted a study where she had two groups both viewing the same photo of a two cars colliding. When looking at the picture, the subjects were described what was happening in the photo. One group had the picture described as “cars smashed” which the other had the picture described as “cars contacted”. The group that heard “cars contacted” later reported that the cars were most likely going 32 mph. On the other hand, the group that heard “cars smashed” reported that they saw glass shattered in the picture and that they thought the cars had been going 41mph. There had been no glass shattered in the photo however, the difference in the verbs skewed the subjects memory of what they saw in the picture. I found this study very interesting as it can be, like you said with the gun, the difference in one word that can have an affect on someone’s memory. Unfortunately for criminal cases around the world, so many factors can change a witness’s memory of a crime and therefore, it is hard to give too much weight to their testimonies.

  2. October 19th, 2015 at 21:24 | #2

    This article made me think of a few questions regarding recall and more internal factors. This post informed me that recalling events can actually make our memories less accurate if we incorporate false information with them at the time of recall. The article seems to focus on external sources of misinformation, which got me thinking about the possible effects of internal sources of misinformation. First, I am wondering if the effect would be the same if the new, incorrect information comes from within? One way I reached this question was thinking about people with PTSD. As learned from Abnormal class, people with this disorder experience recurrent, intrusive memories of a traumatic event. Therefore, they are often recalling the event. Now, I am thinking about how people with this disorder often experience excessive self-blame for causing the event. So I am wondering if this self-blame is incorporated with the memory during recall. For example, if someone was raped, and when they recalled the event they had thoughts such as “I shouldn’t have gone to the place it happened” or “I shouldn’t have talked to my attacker” can this result in them being responsible for the event becoming part of the memory instead of just a thought?

    This post also made me wonder about top-down processing. Can this have an effect on the accuracy of our memory if the memory is inconsistent with what our top-down processing might tell us? For example, let’s say that one has learned (so much so that it becomes part of their top-down processing) that girls are usually at fault when they are raped—whether it is because of what they were wearing, or because they changed their mind, etc. If this person saw the girl before she was raped, could their top-down processing (prior knowledge) change their memory to fit their expectations that it was someone the girls fault, such that they remember the girl was wearing racier clothes than she was or that she was flirting with her rapist even if she wasn’t?

    Finally, this post reminded me of another post on this blog, entitled “Did I leave ____on? : Self Doubt and Metamemory with Undergrads and Clinical OCD Participants”. This article discusses how increased checking can negatively affect memory. These two posts show that memory is really susceptible to change event after the event has occurred. These two studies together also shine some light on people diagnosed with OCD. People with this disorder, when their obsession is excessive doubts and their compulsion is of the checking type, engage in both excessive recalling and checking. Because they engage in both of these memory degrading/ reforming activities is can be assumed that their memory for the things they are concerned about can become really inaccurate and that they can become not confident in their memory, which can drive the cycle of more doubts and more checking, resulting in worse memory, and so on.

  3. Zhichun Yu
    October 19th, 2015 at 20:42 | #3

    I enjoy reading this blog because the negative aspect of retrieving information has never been discussed much in studies. It has always been emphasized that multiple times of retrieving may enhance our long-term memory, but the insertion of wrong information during the retrieving processes has always been ignored. This blog shows that learning new information after retrieving information from long-term memory leads to a reconsolidation process and enhance the imprinting of misinformation.
    Another thing that I really like about this blog is its discussion about the reliability of eyewitness in crime investigation, which can be affected by multiple factors. One of the factors that can be linked to the course is the accuracy of inter-racial face recognition. People are better at recognizing faces from their own race because they have more contacts with them than with people from other races. They are better at perceptual processing with faces from their own race. When people try to recognize faces from other races, they don’t have enough contacts with them to form proper perceptual processes, so they’ll show low ability on inter-racial face recognition. This may cause serious misleading of crime investigation.

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