Home > Memory > What to remember, what to forget? Decisions, decisions….

What to remember, what to forget? Decisions, decisions….

Have you ever found yourself wishing there was a way to erase part of your memory? …perhaps a bad breakup, car accident, or a really embarrassing moment that you simply never want to remember again?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could just wake up one day and have all the bad things in our memory trace be gone forever?  Why yes–I think that would be quite wonderful–and I wish I could tell you there was a way for this to happen, but I’m not.  Unfortunately, the memory of an old girlfriend or boyfriend may stay with you forever; but, what if there was a way in which you could change the way you remember an ex or alter the memory of a bad breakup?  Well thanks to recent research, cognitive psychologists have discovered a way to “forget the unforgettable” (Coman, Manier, & Hirst, 2009).

There is a common misconception many people hold about memory, especially the memory of momentous events that have occurred during one’s lifetime.  Also known as flashbulb memories, these memories seem to be unchanging and unforgettable.  No matter how much time has passed, the details of such events remain extremely vivid and are assumed to be very accurate.  Although as strong and accurate these memories may seem, flashbulb memories are susceptible to change.  Without a person even realizing, the details a person recalls about a certain event can be altered based on experiences had post-event.

So what’s responsible for causing such change?  A mechanism cognitive psychologists refer to as retroactive interference.  As its name suggests, experiences had after an event occurred can often interfere with the original memory that was stored.  Let’s consider the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, for example.  For many members in the Colby community, this is a tragedy they will probably never forget.  Characteristic to most flashbulb memories, it is likely for a person to remember where they were, at what time, who they were with, and how they felt at the moment of their learning about the bombings.  However, in the time since one’s initial storage of this memory, one can imagine the amount of media coverage and conversation that occurred around this event.  Based on what we know about retroactive interference, it is likely that these factors interfered with one’s original memory store and, subsequently, altered the way this person recalled their memory of this event.

As this example demonstrates, our memory’s susceptibility to change is often out of our control and can happen without us even realizing it.  The question remains though– is there a way to control what a person remembers and what a person forgets?  In other words, other than the retroactive interference that occurs naturally after an event, is there a way for one to induce distortion of an individual’s memory?  In a series of slightly complicated experiments, researchers set out to explore this question.  What they found was a phenomenon they referred to as socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting (Coman, Manier, & Hirst, 2009).

Specifically, researchers wondered whether two people who had two very different memories of the same event could, through conversation, forget details they held in their original memory based on the conversation had with another individual.  To test this question, researchers gathered 20 native English speakers who lived in the NYC area on September 11, 2001.  In a series of experiments, participants would answer questions about their personal experiences on this day, first by filling out answers on a questionnaire, followed by answering questions in a simple “yes” or “no” recognition task.  The recognition task was tailored to each participant based on their answers in the questionnaire.  It consisted of a series of statements such as, “I woke up at…”  The statement would end in either the actual response recorded in the individual’s questionnaire, or a response that was gathered from a different person’s questionnaire.  Using a computer, participants would respond to the accuracy of each statement by simply hitting “yes” or “no.”

Following the recognition task was an interview between the experimenter and the participant in which the experimenter read questions from the questionnaire for the participant to respond.  The experimenter recorded each response and would compare these responses to the participant’s written responses before having done the recognition task.  As the final part of the experiment, researchers had the participants pair up and share to each other their personal experiences of September 11.  This conversation would happen in front of the experimenter, however there were no instructions given in what should be included in the conversation had.  If the discussion was not flowing, the experimenter would stimulate discussion by giving the pair talking points such as “talk to each other about the early morning” (630).  Researchers would eventually transcribe the conversation and compare what each participant recalled to their responses in the questionnaire, recognition task, and interview.

As hypothesized, researchers were able to demonstrate socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting among their participants.  Their results concluded that, even when participants had completely different memories of an event, what the participant remembered was dependent upon what the speaker said.  How were the researchers able to induce such forgetting?  In thinking back to retroactive interference, researchers were able to control the interference that occurred by manipulating the questions asked in the recognition task and interview.  By integrating the answers of other participant’s experiences in the recognition task and omitting certain questions altogether, researchers were able to control what aspects of the participants memory would be accessible, and what aspects wouldn’t.  As demonstrated in the final conversation, the recollection of a participant’s experience was different than what they first recalled in the written questionnaire (Coman, Manier, & Hirst, 2009).

So back to that ex-boyfriend.  Based on these results, we now know that through conversation and exchange with others about their own personal experience of a similar event, we can control what details of a memory will be remembered and what details may be eventually forgotten.  So until new research discovers the forgetting the existence of an ex phenomenon, one should engage in this type of exchange in order to forget certain details of their relationship, and to remember more positive ones.

Access to the original article:



Coman, A., Manier, D., & Hirst, W. (2009). Forgetting the unforgettable through conversation: Socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting of September 11 memories. Psychological Science, 20, 627-633. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02343.x

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  1. Meg Giblin
    May 7th, 2014 at 12:49 | #1

    I really liked this article because everyone can relate to this phenomenon. This type of forgetting, also known as suggestibility, is particularly interesting because you are integrating knowledge to your previous memory though you think it’s been there the entire time. This experiment especially shows how easy it can be to manipulate someone’s memory of even flashbulb memories. I think this experiment also can provide evidence for why eyewitness testimony is not always accurate. Like this experiment shows, the way questions are phrased can influence someone’s memory of a significant event. Overall this is a very thought-provoking study that makes us all wonder if any of our memories are truly accurate!

  2. May 8th, 2014 at 11:20 | #2

    Nice article! It is interesting to see just how mutable memory is. I’m guessing that flash bulb memories are so susceptible to change because people feel that they must be correct, even after incorrect information has been introduced. This make me wonder if people who are aware that memory can change this easily (e.g. Cognitive Psych students) are less susceptible to these altered memories. Learning about flashbulb memories has certainly made me more skeptical of the accuracy of my own memories; perhaps said skepticism could prevent one from allowing their memory to change in the future. In addition, it may make people more wary when they hear things such as media coverage. I plan on writing down some notes about my experience the next time something significant happens, and storing it on dropbox for a few years. Maybe when I’m a senior (I’m a freshman now) I can look back and see just how much my memory changed.

  3. May 9th, 2014 at 19:05 | #3

    Meg and Will, thanks for your interest in my post! I really appreciate the comments. Meg, you bring up a really interesting and slightly scary question–are any of our memories truly accurate? There was an interesting post from last semester’s class that discussed how positive and negative emotion related to an event can impact its accuracy. Researchers found that people who had a more negative connotation with the event were more accurate in their recalled account than were people who had more positive connotations. So to answer your question just a little bit, perhaps our more negative memories are the ones that are most accurate (what a shame). Will, you also raise a really good question! Perhaps people who are aware of our memory’s susceptibility to change would be less vulnerable to its distortion. I think exploring this question would make a really interesting study.

  4. May 9th, 2014 at 19:17 | #4

    I found this blog post very interesting because it shows how simply changing how one thinks about or talks about a memory after a bad memory has been formed can change one’s perception and recollection of that memory. This would be particularly useful for forgetting awkward, embarrassing, or even traumatic ones. In Emily’s post, “What if you could forget your prom fiasco? The importance of selective forgetting”, she talks about how young individuals have the ability to selectively forget specific memories through inhibitory control. I think this ability could potentially be combined with altering flashbulb memories through retroactive interference to complete forget unwanted memories. You also mentioned that researchers could control what aspects of an individual’s memory were accessible and what aspects were not. This could be potentially useful for individuals who suffer from PTSD or related psychological disorders where forgetting may be desired. Although PTSD is obviously a very complex and not fully understood disorder, this method could be partially useful in alleviating symptoms. In class, we also talked about implanted memories, where certain people may be susceptible to suggestions that could alter their memories of events. I think implanted memories are related to retroactive interference of flashbulb memories because both involve altering an already-existing memory and both could be used to forget or change bad memories.

  5. October 8th, 2014 at 00:38 | #5

    I found the main concept in this article, retrieval-introduced forgetting, to be very intriguing. This is a phenomenon whereby remembering causes forgetting of other memories. Until now, I had always looked at remembering/retrieval practice in a positive light (for example, strengthening memory traces, increasing accessibility etc.) and never noticed that it could at times also have negative effects. Additionally, I thought it was interesting how the social component added to this experiment (talking to your partner about a salient event) could have enhanced this phenomenon. The social component added a more personal, relatable and emotionally involving/provoking touch to the information provided by the partner–making it easier for the participant to absorb the information as a part of their own memory.
    The post mentioned that at the end of the experiment “recollection of a participant’s experience was different than what they first recalled in the written questionnaire.” However, as I read on, I became more curious about one thing that was not discussed as much in this post–HOW were the memories of the participants different? Were they simply remembering additional information about the event, including the partner’s experience and remembering that to be his/her own too? Or did he/she ‘re-write’ his/her own memory, in other words, did he/she forget his/her own memory? (from the post, it sounded like the latter was true.)
    This question of HOW the memories differ could be important in other topics in cognitive psychology too. It could show how the memory system works in terms of how it treats old/original memories–add new info? write over old memory? For example, when studying and re-studying/reviewing, are we adding new memories on top of older ones? or are we re-writing some memories?

  6. October 8th, 2014 at 14:05 | #6

    Very well done article. It was very interesting to learn that large scale events like 9/11, that seem so vivid in memory, can be manipulated so easily. Like William said above, I’d be interested to see a study which compared the memory change between subjects who have been briefed on the memory effects of retroactive interference, and those who haven’t (like those in the experiment.) Having knowledge of how you form and hold memories is very valuable. I would assume that those who had knowledge of it’s effects would not be as susceptible. Another question I had is how big of an effect does media coverage have on your memory of an important event? An example of this would be memory of a public figure’s death versus the memory of a family member’s death.

  7. October 22nd, 2015 at 13:17 | #7

    This was an informative post and showed a great example of retroactive interference and shared-retrieval induced forgetting. Retroactive interference can in fact interfere with the way we retell an event. In this blog, relatable social conversations are shown to impact how we retrieve flashbulb memories while also altering what information we recall. The study that Janie put in her blog was very relatable because I too remember 9/11 as a traumatic event in my childhood. Also, I have noticed that I forget certain aspects of that day when it is brought up in conversation. Often I will only say the exact location of where I was when I found out that the planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. This is a result of the conversation being centered around “Where you were at that time of the crash” since I was only in 2nd grade. This blog also makes a good point that people remember what they want to remember about an event if it was a negative experience for them. Some people use suppression as a coping mechanism and therefore can suppress memories of an event. So, maybe retroactive interference is a good thing with break ups only if you start dating someone else right away? Sometimes losing memories can be bad but in this scenario it could be good if the break-up or relationship was not a positive one!

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