You are here

Accuracy and Inaccuracy in Memory and Cognition

16 February, 2016 - 09:24


  1. Outline the variables that can influence the accuracy of our memory for events.
  2. Explain how schemas can distort our memories.
  3. Describe the representativeness heuristic and the availability heuristic and explain how they may lead to errors in judgment.

As we have seen, our memories are not perfect. They fail in part due to our inadequate encoding and storage, and in part due to our inability to accurately retrieve stored information. But memory is also influenced by the setting in which it occurs, by the events that occur to us after we have experienced an event, and by the cognitive processes that we use to help us remember. Although our cognition allows us to attend to, rehearse, and organize information, cognition may also lead to distortions and errors in our judgments and our behaviors.

In this section we consider some of the cognitivbiases that are known to influence humans. Cognitive biases are errors in memoryor judgment that are caused by the inappropriate use of cognitivprocesses (Table 8.3). The study of cognitive biases is important both because it relates to the important psychological theme of accuracy versus inaccuracy in perception, and because being aware of the types of errors that we may make can help us avoid them and therefore improve our decision-making skills.

Table 8.3 Cognitive Processes That Pose Threats to Accuracy



Potentialthreatto accuracy

Source monitoring

The ability to accurately identify the source of a memory

Uncertainty about the source of a memory may lead to mistaken judgments.

Confirmation bias

The tendency to verify and confirm our existing memories rather than to challenge and disconfirm them

Once beliefs become established, they become self-perpetuating and difficult to change.

Functional fixedness

When schemas prevent us from seeing and using information in new and nontraditional ways

Creativity may be impaired by the overuse of traditional, expectancy-based thinking.

Misinformation effect

Errors in memory that occur when new but incorrect information influences existing accurate memories

Eyewitnesses who are questioned by the police may change their memories of what they observed at the crime scene.


When we are more certain that our memories and judgments are accurate than we should be

Eyewitnesses may be very confident that they have accurately identified a suspect, even though their memories are incorrect.


When some stimuli, (e.g., those that are colorful, moving, or unexpected) grab our attention and make them more likely to be remembered

We may base our judgments on a single salient event while we ignore hundreds of other equally informative events that we do not see.

Representativeness heuristic

Tendency to make judgments according to how well the event matches our expectations

After a coin has come up “heads” many times in a row, we may erroneously think that the next flip is more likely to be “tails” (the gambler’s fallacy).

Availability heuristic

Idea that things that come to mind easily are seen as more common

We may overestimate the crime statistics in our own area, because these crimes are so easy to recall.

Cognitive accessibility

Idea that some memories are more highly activated than others

We may think that we contributed more to a project than we really did because it is so easy to remember our own contributions.

Counterfactual thinking

When we “replay” events such that they turn out differently (especially when only minor changes in the events leading up to them make a difference)

We may feel particularly bad about events that might not have occurred if only a small change had occurred before them