The Seven Sins
Geoffrey W. Sutton
Schacter’s Seven Sins of Memory is like a fine seven course meal. Each course serves up an interesting collection of research that’s easy to read by the general public and pleasantly presented, yet rich with enough details to appeal to scholars and practitioners. I left feeling satisfied.
Every mental health clinician and all who work with people should read about the seven sins of memory and come back to it when they wonder about memory complaints or detect discrepancies in recall.
Students will find it helpful too as Schacter weaves psychological science into meaningful stories—a good example of how to write about psychological science for nonpsychology majors.
I must say that I found the notion of “sins” strange—is this a psychology of religion book? I suppose it could be. Afterall, religious scholar Craig Keener included a discussion of memory in his book about the Gospels and the Life of Christ. However, the sins of memory are the problems with human memory—problems that can deceive us and lead to inaccurate conclusions. We can miss the mark and we may need forgiveness.
I’d like to suggest a title: Memory: Seven Reasons for Humility. But then again, I’m not a best selling author or a famous psychological scientist.
There’s so much in this book. In this post, I will just note some of the key features of each chapter so you get a sense of what this is all about.
Problems of Forgetting
1. The Sin of Transience
We forget names and other things as time passes. Memory fades. Memories are fleeting- transient. We have less mental reserve as we age. How much we remember is linked to how much we elaborate on new information when forming a new memory (encoding).
2. The Sin of Absent-Mindedness
When we are distracted, we may not capture sufficient information to form an adequate memory—we are absent-minded. We can also be distracted, which can lead to impaired recall of a memory. The phenomenon of change blindness fits here too.
3. The Sin of Blocking
Name blocking is so common and serves as a quintessential example of blocking. Sometimes, information seems like it’s on the tip-of-the-tongue – a well-known phenomenon in memory research.
When Memory is Present but Wrong
4. The Sin of Attribution
We can make errors in recall when our memories store misattributions. This can be serious when people falsely accuse someone of a crime because they have seen someone else’s familiar face and stored it along with the offense. Psychologists refer to memory binding—connecting various bits of information into a memory, which isn't really a record of our personal experience.
5. The Sin of Suggestibility
The questions we ask can influence what people recall when they provide answers. Questions are so powerful that people have recalled events that never happened. Suggestibility can create false memories. Obviously this can, and in fact has been, a serious problem when witnesses to a crime are interviewed about what they saw or heard. Not surprisingly, Schacter refers to the work of Elizabeth Loftus.
6. The Sin of Bias
Our memories can be influenced by present experiences. We tend to recall the past in ways that are consistent (consistency and change biases) with our present.
And our stereotypical biases combined with recall of memories can affect our views about people and experiences in the present.
Schacter includes a useful analysis of the power of fake news to influence our beliefs. Mere repetition appears to strengthen beliefs in fake news (the illusory truth effect).
Persistence and Distressful Memories
Persistence and Distressful Memories
7. The Sin of Persistence
When memories persist, we can re-experience pain and humiliation. Emotional experiences act to highlight certain experiences and not others. Emotions can also impair what we remember about an event when we focused on the threat and did not perceive other details of the event. Thus, because we focused on the threat, our memories are incomplete. Our current mood can influence the nature of memories we recall.
The Seven Sins: Vices or Virtues
In Vices and Virtues, Schacter suggests ideas about how our problems with memory may have developed. And he cites some evidence suggesting how our problems may be beneficial that is, virtues. For example, the gradual fading of some memories can relieve us of the burden of nonuseful details and may even lessen the pain of bad experiences. Even trauma can serve us when it allows us to avoid similar painful situations in the future.
I praised the book at the beginning and conclude with a clear statement that I recommend this book. I say this as a psychologist with years of experience testing the memories of children and adults in clinical practice and for the courts. I have also consulted in numerous cases of people claiming disability due to memory impairment.
I suggested a different title: Memory: Seven Reasons for Humility. In addition to the applications suggested by Schacter, I add a lesson in humility. Even those blessed with the best brains must deal with the common problem that our memories can lead us astray thus, a dose of humility in warranted. Though some people are undoubtedly out to deceives us and spin their misdeeds into golden memories, others are simply mistaken. Great interviewers will be mindful of the frailties and strengths of human memory. And many of us will need forgiveness.
Our memories are precious. Without adequate memories, we lose a sense of self-identity—who are we without a memory?
Cite this review
Sutton, G. W. (2022). The sevens sins of memory: Book review & resources. SuttonReviews. Retrieved from https://suttonreviews.suttong.com/2022/01/the-seven-sins-of-memory-book-review.html
Schacter, D. L. (2021). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers, updated edition. New York: Mariner. (Kindle Edition)
Book details: 532 pages, Preface to the updated edition, Introduction, 7 chapters- one each for the 7 sins, A final reflections/ideas chapter, notes, bibliography, end material.
About the book author
Daniel L. Schacter is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
Please check out my website www.suttong.com
Also, consider connecting with me on FACEBOOK Geoff W. Sutton
You can read many published articles at no charge:
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann
The malleability of memory with Elizabeth Loftus by Howard Burton
Picking Cotton: Our memoir of injustice and redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton
Daniel Schacter on The Seven Sins of Memory on YouTube