Can Human Memories Be Reliable?

Can Human Memories Be Reliable?

In casual conversations with friends, people are naturally nostalgic and often like to talk about memorable moments they’ve had. Everyone likes to remember the times they have enjoyed with friends and family while also remembering times of trouble and difficulty getting through day-to-day life during periods of grief. But for better or worse, could our memories be letting us down? Are we really remembering past events in our lives or are people merely remembering what they want to? Some recent research has pulled up some interesting figures that are different than what many would imagine.

According to Psychology Today, neuroscientists have been able to show that when humans remember something, they naturally will reconstruct the event in their heads. They also mentioned how people will suppress memories that are painful, and that memory may just be adaptive to the situation, and therefore has to be considered as unreliable. While it is not surprising that people suppress painful memories away, it is unsettling to me how the memories of normal people cannot necessarily be considered reliable.

The New Yorker also had an article just last year stemming from an experiment on how people remember tragedies. According to the article, back in the late 1980’s, Prof. Ulric Neisser of Emory University began to look at how people reacted to “flashbulb memories”. He put this in context by asking his students to write about what they remembered when they heard about the Challenger explosion in 1986. His students were asked to do this the day after the tragedy. Two and a half years later, he again asked the students who completed the first reflection to make a second one. It seems pretty surprising that when the psychologists rated the accuracy of the students on a 1-7 scale, the average was less than 3. But on a 1-5 scale for confidence, the students rated themselves on average at about a 4.17, showing their confidence/inaccuracy.

I thought this result was somewhat surprising. Granted, I don’t have any background knowledge on human memory, but given that so many people trust the memory of others fairly easily, this study would definitely show otherwise. One would think that people would have the same memories about their reaction to a national tragedy, be it the day after or 11 years later. With that being said, it also makes it comical that statistically, the students can be quite confident with how inaccurate they end up being. In my research, I could not find a more recent study than after 9/11, where the neurologists had pretty similar findings, generally speaking.

Human memory can also fog things up in our legal system. The Psychology Today article also reported that in the United States, false confessions can happen in just under 25% out of 289 criminal convictions in an average year that were eventually expunged due to DNA evidence. Why does this occur? Possibly out of fear or intimidation from others. But you can’t rule out that it relates back to memory, because even if a suspect were lying, they would still have to remember their story and have a motive for doing so.


Eisold, Ken. “Unreliable Memory.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.

Konnikova, Maria. “You Have No Idea What Happened.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 04 Feb. 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.

3 thoughts on “Can Human Memories Be Reliable?

  1. Michael Robert Szawaluk

    This blog post is very relevant to me. I am a taking a course this semester labeled “Wrongful Conviction”, and part of the syllabus has a section for false confessions and eyewitness misidentification. Reading off my notes from this class, 75% of criminal cases rely strictly on eyewitness identification. If you go to this website,, it will lead you to several interesting studies that outline how our memory can play play a critical role when someone’s life is on the line. In fact, eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause for wrongful convictions. This, unfortunately, is a terrible thing. Everyday we rely on our memory for our groceries, homework, what someone’s name is and so on, so remembering details in high pressure situations is extremely critical. If you think you will ever be in a situation where you could potentially jeopardize a person’s life, check out this website on how to improve you memory,

  2. Christina Rae Locurto

    I think the human brain and memory is a very tricky thing. Different people across the world remember things differently. There are an infinite number of confounding variables that could attribute to if humans are reliable for remembering things or not. A few of the confounding variables I can think of include age, sex, environment, education level and health. I found this neat article that discusses what triggers certain events to be recalled in your head. Especially if you’re interested in psychology or neurology, this article will be very informative and interesting for you.

  3. William Joseph Robbins-cole

    To build on the way that the law system can be diluted by the weaknesses of the human memory. Elizabeth Loftus, an expert in memory planting, has shown that by forcing a criminal to imagine he/she was apart of the crime during an interrogation can sometimes lead to a false confession due to a false memory planted in the defendant’s mind. You can read more here

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