A new survey has revealed that many Americans think that memory is more powerful, objective and reliable than it actually is.
"This is the first large-scale, nationally representative survey of the U.S. population to measure intuitive beliefs about how memory works," said University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Simons, who led the study with Union College psychology professor Christopher Chabris.
The telephone survey, carried out by the opinion research company SurveyUSA, asked 1,500 respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about memory.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents likened human memory to a video camera that records information precisely for later review. Almost half believed that once experiences are encoded in memory, those memories do not change.
Nearly 40 percent felt that the testimony of a single confident eyewitness should be enough evidence to convict someone of a crime.
But the researchers said these and other beliefs about memory aren't supported by research, which shows that memory can be unreliable and even manipulated. For example, even witnesses who are confident about what they've seen are wrong about 30 percent of the time.
"The fallibility of memory is well established in the scientific literature, but mistaken intuitions about memory persist," Chabris said. "The extent of these misbeliefs helps explain why so many people assume that politicians who may simply be remembering things wrong must be deliberately lying."
The new findings also have important implications for proceedings in legal cases, the researchers said.
"Our memories can change even if we don't realize they have changed," Simons said.
"That means that if a defendant can't remember something, a jury might assume the person is lying. And misremembering one detail can impugn their credibility for other testimony, when it might just reflect the normal fallibility of memory," he added.
The study has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.