Can you nonbelieve it: What happens when you do not believe in your memories?

Are Nonbelieved Memories Really Rare?

In the first systematic study looking into nonbelieved memories, the frequency and characteristics of nonbelieved memories were surveyed. Almost 25% of the 1593 participants reported to have experienced a nonbelieved memory (Mazzoni, Scoboria, & Harvey, 2010). For example, one participant recollected that he had seen a dinosaur although the belief in the event had vanished. Another person reported a childhood memory of a car accident, but many years later discovered that it actually happened to his brother. Memory characteristics, such as visual details, of nonbelieved memories were also examined. Nonbelieved memories did not differ from believed memories in terms of visual characteristics, clarity, richness, and feeling of reliving, which may explain why nonbelieved memories “feel” so authentic.  

Some researchers argued that studies like the one of Mazzoni and colleagues (2010) rely on directly asking participants about a typical experience and in this way reveal the purpose of the inquiry. If participants know what the researcher is interested in, then that can artificially inflate the rate of nonbelieved memories. In order to understand the nature and frequency of nonbelieved memories in everyday autobiographical memory, Scoboria and Talarico (2013) used an indirect cueing method, without artificially drawing participants’ attention to nonbelieved memories. Participants were asked to recall events from different ages and then rated the degree of event recollections (memory) and belief in the occurrence of events (belief) on 1-8 point scales. Surprisingly, with this indirect cueing procedure, only 3% to 6% of the events recalled were nonbelieved memories, a much lower rate than the 25% reported by Mazzoni et al. (2010).

What explains the discrepancy in frequency of nonbelieved memories elicited by direct and indirect cueing methods? Well, perhaps there is no real discrepancy. Although 25% of people have salient nonbelieved memories when you interview them systematically about them, the accessibility rate to nonbelieved memories in daily retrospection might be quite low (3-6%), and understandably so: why bother about something that you do not believe. Indeed, an interesting question is: how do nonbelieved memories affect people’s attitudes and behaviour? For instance, will nonbelieved memories of sexual abuse influence retractors’ attitudes toward the family members that they previously accused of the abuse? Or will their vivid nonbelieved memories hinder the attempts of retractors to restore their relationship with their families? In order to address these questions, researchers have developed ways to experimentally evoke nonbelieved memories in the laboratory.

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