Moral impressions affect memory

By HSC Staff Writer • Published: June 23rd, 2006
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

If you think someone’s a bad egg, chances are they’ll seem even more rotten when you remember them later.

A Cornell study suggests viewing a person as dishonest or immoral distorts our memories. When we recall that person’s behavior later, it will seem worse than it really was.

Scientists gave nearly three-hundred college students a story about a man who left a restaurant without paying, complete with details about what he ate and drank and the amount of his bill.

Half the students were told the man walked out on the bill because he “was a jerk who liked to steal.” The other half were told the man received an emergency phone call and left without paying.

When students were asked to recall what happened a week later, the students who were told the man was a jerk remembered him walking out on a much higher check… ten to twenty-five percent more than the bill actually was.

But the students who heard the man left because of an emergency phone call remembered the bill as slightly lower than it actually was.

The study, in the journal Memory and Cognition, is the first to show that the level of blame we place upon people actually may affect our memory of objective facts.

Besides insight into memory, the research offers some points to ponder.

Despite their best intentions, people perceived with indifference or dislike may find themselves remembered more harshly than they deserve. Even if they are “good eggs.”