Despite what we like to think, our memories don’t work like a file drawer. We don’t file experiences away exactly as they happened, and when we remember something, we aren’t just pulling out a perfect replica of the past. Instead, when we remember things from our past, our brains go through plenty of gymnastics to make it happen, and as a result, our memories can get distorted based our bigger beliefs, our expectations, our goals, and other biases.
One interesting finding to come out of social psychology is that we remember things the way we expect them to have happened. If I think back to my childhood, and I try to remember what it was like to play with my friends on the playground, I’m not remembering a scene that actually happened; I’m imagining a scene that probably happened. I see myself with other kids who I know were my friends, I see myself playing in a way that matches the personality I think I had, and I see my friends playing in ways that match how I think they were at the time.
How Expectations Bias Our Memories
As an example of how this can happen, take one classic study by Michael Conway and Michael Ross. They had students come in and rate how good their study skills were. Then these students participated in a lottery to see who would get to take a 3-week study skills workshop. If a student wasn’t selected, they were put on a “waiting list,” but they key to this study is that half of the students got to take a study skills workshop and the other half didn’t–all of which was determined at random.
After the workshop was finished, everyone was asked to remember, as accurately as possible, what their study skills were 3 weeks ago. They got the same questions, and the researchers just asked: “What do you think you said 3 weeks ago when you answered these questions?” If memory is a file drawer, then students should be able to remember their answers easily. But there’s also a potential bias here; the students who got to take a long workshop believe that their study skills have improved. In other words, when they think back to their skills from three weeks ago, they assume that they were worse than they are now, compared to the control group.
That’s what this study found. Even though the workshop didn’t seem to actually improve students’ study skills, when they thought back to their original answers, students who had taken the workshop remembered having worse study skills than they actually did. The people who were on the waiting list (and didn’t expect to have improved at all) were more accurate; they didn’t have a biased memory because they didn’t have any reason to expect a difference from their current standing.
Gender Stereotypes & Remembering Past Test Performance
So you can see how our memories can be biased by expectations, but another common social form of expectation is a stereotype. A stereotype is a belief people have about whole groups of people. For example, there’s a stereotype that “lawyers are greedy.” If a person has this stereotype, then when he meets a lawyer, he might expect the lawyer to be greedy. These stereotypes, then, are important in determining people’s expectations of others. But some psychologists have proposed that stereotypes can also guide expectations of ourselves.
One fascinating study put this idea to the test: do gender stereotypes guide people’s memories of their own lives?
The researchers focused on stereotypes of gender and academic achievement in both math and the arts. In France, there is a very important national test that all students must take, and this test includes sections in both mathematics and the arts. It didn’t surprise me to learn that national standardized testing in France includes arts as a section, and the U.S. doesn’t. Then again, that’s a case of cultural stereotyping in action on my part, but we’ll talk about that some other time…
For this study, the researchers had the actual scores for a bunch of students, which allowed them to see how accurately students could remember their performance on this test (which had taken place about 2 years prior to the study).
The study was very simple. A bunch of girls and boys were asked: “Please, indicate as precisely as possible your marks in mathematics and arts obtained on your last national standardized test.” The question, then, was whether boys and girls would remember their scores in stereotype-consistent ways.
Just to catch you up to speed, common cultural stereotypes are that boys are better at math than girls and that girls are better at art than boys. Obviously, this is not an endorsement of those statements. I’m just saying that for a long time, people have tended to assume these gender differences.
The Importance of Belief in Gender Stereotypes
Okay, hold on a second. There’s one extra thing that I should tell you about this study before showing you the results. Three months before these students were asked to remember their big important test scores, they were also asked how much they believed in the gender stereotypes. It was as simple as asking how much they agreed that “men have high ability in match” and “women have high ability in arts.”
So did girls and boys have stereotype-consistent memories? It depended on whether they believed the stereotypes.
First, let’s look at the students’ memories for their math scores. For boys, it didn’t matter whether they believed these stereotypes or not. For girls, though, the more they believed the stereotypes, the more girls underestimated their math scores. That is, they were remembering math scores that were lower than their actual scores.
As for their memories for their art scores, girls’ memories weren’t affected much by the stereotypes, but the more boys believed that girls are better at art, the more they underestimated their own art scores.
Internalizing Gender Stereotypes
The point of all of this is that gender stereotypes can become so widely accepted that they can seep into people’s beliefs of their own abilities. The fact that this study had students’ actual grades, though, allows us to see how stereotypes can lead to objectively inaccurate memories of our own past achievements.
On a more general note, though, this is also more evidence that our memories are not perfect. Social psychologists have long known that our memories are guided by much more than what actually has happened in the past. In this case, we see that people remember their own pasts based on what they assume happened, in addition to what actually happened.
So when thinking about your own past achievements, it might be helpful to realize that your memory could be colored by other people’s expectations of your skills and abilities.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||It didn’t surprise me to learn that national standardized testing in France includes arts as a section, and the U.S. doesn’t. Then again, that’s a case of cultural stereotyping in action on my part, but we’ll talk about that some other time…|