UC Santa Cruz Memory and Cognition Lab

Memory Distortion for Past Choices

What is remembered about a decision can be as important as the decision itself, especially in determining how much regret or satisfaction one experiences. Yet these memories are often not completely accurate. In fact, our research indicates that the process of making and remembering choices yields memories that tend to be distorted in predictable ways (e.g., Mather & Johnson, 2000; Mather, Knight, & McCaffrey, 2005; Mather, Shafir, & Johnson, 2000; Mather, Shafir, & Johnson, 2003).

For example, imagine you are looking for an apartment to rent and have the following information about two apartments. Given this information, which apartment would you choose to rent?

OPTION A

No laundry facilities in the building
Near lots of great restaurants
Lots of closet space
Mildew and mold in bathroom
Heating system is not very effective
High ceilings
Beautiful hardwood floors
No views from any of the windows

OPTION B

Old shag carpeting
Heating system works well
Almost no closet space
Grocery store right around the corner
On a quiet street
Not much light at any time of day
Tiny kitchen
Bathroom is sparkling clean

If you try to decide which apartment you would select, you may find that you try to directly compare the features of the options (for example, noting that one apartment has hardwood floors whereas the other has shag carpets) rather than evaluating each option separately.

In many choices we make, however, not every feature has an analogous (or alignable) feature in all the available options. In a study in which we had participants make choices in which the options had some alignable and some nonalignable features (like the apartment choice above), we found that both younger and older adults fill in the comparison gaps when remembering, creating features in the other option to contrast with existing features (Mather et al., 2005).

In other research, we found that people show choice-supportive asymmetries in their memories of the features of choice options, attributing more positive features to the option they chose and more negative features to the options they rejected than participants who made different choices (Mather et al., 2000, 2003). Older adults are more likely to show choice-supportive asymmetries than younger adults (Mather & Johnson, 2000), an effect that may be due to their greater focus on regulating emotion.

References

Mather, M., & Johnson, M. K. (2000). Choice-supportive source monitoring: Do our decisions seem better to us as we age? Psychology and Aging, 15, 596-606.

Mather, M., Knight, M., & McCaffrey, M. (2005). The allure of the alignable: Younger and older adults' false memories of choice features. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134, 38-51.

Mather, M., Shafir, E., & Johnson, M. K. (2000). Misrememberance of options past: Source monitoring and choice. Psychological Science, 11, 132-138.

Mather, M., Shafir, E., & Johnson, M. K. (2003). Remembering chosen and assigned options. Memory & Cognition, 31, 422-434.


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