Danah Henriksen

Reconstructed Memory Experiment – War of the Ghosts

The class experiment that we did using the “War of the Ghosts” story provided a true-life snapshot of the research conducted by Bartlett, and recaptured some of the principles of memory that were derived from his work.  In analyzing the data from the immediate, 2-week, and 4-week later recalls of the story, I do not know which subjects provided which results, and will simply refer to them as Subject A, B, etc.

Bartlett asserted that remembering was “an active reconstruction of past events”.  (http://www.worc.ac.uk/departs/psycho/UG_Courses/Archive/2001-2002/Psy280/Lecture6.html) This makes a great deal of sense in that what we typically mean by “remembering”, and the way it occurs in our everyday lives, i.e. we tend to recall the gist of a story, event, conversation, etc.  Rather than perfect, rote recall, we focus on meaning and don’t recall every actual and specific detail.  As opposed to our memory being reproductive in nature, it is essentially reconstructive, that is we recreate the meaning of a memory by merging elements of what actually occurred with knowledge from our existing schema (Ashcraft, 1989).  In examining the data from our class story recalls, we can see that this occurred across the board.  From Subjects A – H, it is clear that no one exhibited perfect recall of the story.  Subjects A, C, F, G, and H seemed to actually recall more in quantity (albeit to quite varying degrees) through subsequent memories; Subjects D was relatively consistent in recall quantity, while Subjects B and E lost amounts of recall data over time.  Despite subject differences in the amount of information reported in later recalls, no one (with the possible exception of tainted subject F) showed much in the way of increased accuracy, but rather a tendency to either omit particulars or to elaborate by adding sentences or details that were not originally in the story.

Overall, everyone who reported the story did a reasonable job in recalling the overall plot, though there was significant variability in most other elements along the way, and this is also quite consistent with the performance of Bartlett’s subjects.  Outside of main plot, the differences that did occur in recall basically fell into two categories, both of which were discussed by Ashcraft regarding Bartlett’s research.  Omissions, is one significant aspect of change in recall protocols.  Minor events and details had a tendency to get overlooked, in lieu of “the gist”.  I noted that in almost every case, the subjects omitted the detail of hunting seals, or failed to accurately recall the village name of Egulac.  There were some other commonalities of omission such as
The young men hid behind a log  
They heard the sound of paddles
The name of the other town mentioned: Kalama
That the story was retold to relatives by a fire
That his face became contorted
Though one or two of the subjects may have noted one of these details here or there, the overall tendency was to exclude them.  I would take this to be good evidence of the omission aspect of reconstructive memory (Bartlett, 1932).  None of these details were particularly central to the key ingredients of the plot, and consequently seemed to fade away in successive recall trials.  It is difficult to say whether they were disregarded during the original reading of the story, whether they were not stored into long-term memory, or simply not recognized in terms of retrieval cues.  What remains clear is the notion that overall meaning precedes minutiae in a task of meaningful memory such as this.  Also significant on this note is the fact that neither of the experimenters (Bartlett or Matt) required full recall or detailed information on the story, but rather “what you remember about this”.  Unlike the long-term memory experiments we performed in previous weeks, the recall on this task was purely semantic and reconstructed, and subjects naturally grasped for the meaning of the plot, noting what was most salient with respect to their own schema.

Another significant aspect of Bartlett’s research, which also arose in our class experiment, was the concept of normalizing and rationalizing the events in memory.  People use their own view of the world, in terms of existing knowledge and prior experience, to frame events that they witness, read, encounter, etc.  In recalling a memory or certain information, we rely on such prior knowledge to help us make connections, relate to the material, and thus retrieve it as “normal”, or “sensible” (Ashcraft, 1989).  “Normal” or “sensible”, in this context is based upon our own perspective or worldview, and reconstructed memory a somewhat relative device.  Bartlett referred to this stored knowledge of the world (and our lives) as schema, and used the term to explain some of the errors that occur in reconstructed memory.  In the process of recalling a memory, and normalizing or rationalizing it, we have a tendency to change or alter anything that doesn’t quite fit or match with an existing schema.  Details are changed or information added to make the memory a better fit with what is already known or has been experienced in the world (Ashcraft, 1989).  This idea made a great deal of sense to me, simply in considering the fact that most of us have some degree of instinctive discomfort with the unknown, and tend to shy away from things that are too different or don’t tie in with our thinking.  In several instances this took place in the War of Ghosts story.

The very title of the piece “War of Ghosts” connotes the fact that ghosts are an integral element of the story.  In Bartlett’s original research, the subjects increasingly omitted the word “ghosts” from recall protocols.  This seemed due to the fact that ghosts are concepts that are not prevalent within normal schema.  Our class experiment showed some degree of this weakening of the ghost memory over time.  In the final memory trial only 3 of the 7 recalls made any mention of the word ghost, and over time the concept was used in different ways:  “they became ghosts”, “a boat of ghosts came by”, or “I’ll die and become a ghost”, etc.  Therefore, though we did not exemplify a complete lack of recall on this point (to the degree of Bartlett’s subject), we did perhaps normalize a bit by not focusing on it, or by paying less attention to the term ghosts than the title would warrant.

Another detail on this note was inclination to forget the point about hunting for seals.  I believe this also demonstrated a general tendency to normalize the story.  The notion of hunting for seals is completely foreign to most of us in Michigan.  In fact, outside of people who hunt in an uncommon region, this does not fit into normal schema.  As a result, the detail was either omitted or altered in almost every case (one subject mentioned seals in the initial trial, but omitted it after that).  A few subjects did simply mention “hunting” or changed it to say that the young men went fishing, both of which seem like fairly normal or commonplace occurrences in our Michiganian schema.

A small but interesting point is the lack of recall of the world “relatives” as used in the actual story, which was most often altered to “family”.  In our framework of language relatives are usually slightly more removed and distant relations, whereas family are those that are lived with or are immediate, close relations.  The context of the boy’s use of the word “relatives”, was actually closer to “family” in our schema…and we did indeed respond by changing it to match the schema.

Overall, I thought this experiment was a highly interesting example of the principles of reconstructive memory in action.  We recreated and retrieved the story within the context of our own framework and experiences, and along the way demonstrated many of the principles described in the research on this topic.