#30in30 – Your Brain uses Relevance Analysis to Categorize Memory

I used to forget different kinds of numbers. In history class, I never stood a chance during tests, because I constantly confused dates; sure, some people could easily remember a lot of historical events, but I could not. I do not even know the phone number of my favorite pizza spot by heart, although I have called it hundreds of times. Unfortunately, I need to write down other people’s birthdays in my calendar to remind myself in time and to save myself from embarrassing moments. My own birthday, however, as well as my bank account’s PIN, my mobile number and my military identification number are stuck in my memory until this very day. This, in fact, is the product of a cognitive bias called self-reference effect and the content of today’s 30in30.

Rogers et al. discovered that individuals remembered random words connected with a self-referent encoding manipulation (“Does this describe you?) better than words that were encoded by different kinds of tasks. (Rogers, Timothy B.; Kuiper, Nicholas A.; Kirker, W.S. (1977), “Self-Reference and the Encoding of Personal Information”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35 (9): 677–678) For instance, Craik and Tulving (1975) asked the participants of their study to answer with yes/no-questions whether words were capitalized, if they rhymed or to create a sentence containing the target word. The deeper the processing of the word was, the better the participants remembered it later. After carrying the thoughts Craik/Tulving, Rogers et al. concluded that “when we relate things we want to remember to ourselves, this can lead to stronger memories”. Although the self-reference effect was supported in some studies, a 1997s meta-analysis comprehensively confirmed the existence of the effect (see: Symons, Cynthia S.; Johnson, Blair T. (1997). “The self-reference effect in memory: A meta-analysis”)

That’s good news for me. Apparently, I tend to remember numbers related to me much better because my brain processes them deeper, since “deeper processing leads to better memory”, as Craik/Lockard proposed in 1972. And thankfully, I am not alone with being caught within my own cognitive barriers. There are quite a lot of bloggers who write about the effects of the self-reference effect on their everyday life.

As is often the case when cognitive biases occur in a spectator’s view on the world, the impacts in the legal profession are most likely found at the perception of a witness. Some sources state that involved individuals remember an accident much more detailed than spectators would. It goes without saying that this might impact criminal law cases as well as tort cases.

A more general question would be whether the self-reference effect automatically fosters the trust a court or party should have in the testimony of an involved witness. To resolve this question, empirical research and further studies would be required.

When talking to your client or a witness of your case, you should pay attention especially for the testimony they were not involved in.


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