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Psychology for HSEQ professionals: lesson #1 your memory (kind of) sucks

This week in research, I bring you a classic psychology experiment by Loftus and Palmer (1974), who studied how new information can influence recollection of an event (i.e. memory kinda sucks).

The ‘busy people’ summary:

  • What the researchers were trying to prove: that your recollection of something you witnessed can be affected by information you gain afterwards.
  • What they found: evidence supporting this hypothesis.
  • What it means to you: be mindful of the effects of time and new information on your and other people’s memory. The experiments showed that even the words chosen to question someone can influence recollection/description of a past event, even to the point where people ‘remembered’ things that never happened.
  • The discrete sales pitch: don’t be a victim of fragile memories, enable immediate reporting of risks, hazards, and incidents/events on the go using Synergi Life mobile! For more info, email renzo.huruiti@dnvgl.com or call +61 457 826 680.

Still interested? This is what happened:

Loftus and Palmer wanted to test the hypothesis that post-event information could affect how you recall what you actually witnessed. To do so, they conducted two experiments using uni students.

In the first experiment, 45 students were shown seven short clips of traffic accidents. After each clip, they were asked:

“About how fast were the cars going when they ‘VERB’ into each other?”

With the verb being any of the below:

  • Contacted
  • Hit
  • Bumped
  • Collided
  • Smashed

Result: the more ‘severe’ the verb, the higher the speed reported.

When they found this, the researchers argued that:

  • The memory of the crash could have been distorted by the verb that was used in questioning, or
  • people were just ‘winging it’ and adjusted their responses to the prompts used in the question

Both were perfectly acceptable conclusions, so to settle it, they did another experiment.

In this one, they showed 150 participants a one-minute video that had a 4 second scene of a multiple car crash. They were divided into three equal groups, and asked:

  • Group 1: How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?
  • Group 2: How fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?
  • Group 3 was not asked about car speeds (this was the control group)

A week later, participants returned and were asked a bunch of useless questions about the video, except for one:

  • Did you see any broken glass?

There was no broken glass in the clip, so the correct answer was ‘NO’. A few ‘YES’ were expected (many things could’ve distorted your memory as a ‘70s psychology student) but the results showed that participants were much more likely to recall glass if they belonged to the group that was asked “how fast were the cars going when they SMASHED each other”.

These results seem to support the idea that information gained after witnessing an event can in fact influence your memory of it, or at least impact the way you recall it. In this case, the new information came in the verbs used during questioning, and their impact on memory was significant.

PSA moment: just because an experiment has supporting results, it does not mean it becomes ‘fact’, it is just an indication that there may be something going on after all.

So what does this mean for us?

In a professional context, whether it be an accident investigation or you simply want to know what happened, it is important to remember the effect of time and new information on memory. Also of importance are the words we choose in our questioning, as these can inadvertently influence the accuracy of the answers we get. Knowing this is equally useful if you are the one answering somebody else’s questions. This is also why mobile solutions for reporting incidents, hazards, near misses, etc. are so important, they enable people to report on the spot than later on when ‘noise’ may distort the facts!

That’s today’s ‘Psychology Lesson’, see you next time and remember to try Synergi Life in your business!

This article is brought to you by Synergi Life. Learn more about how you can increase the accuracy of incident reports by using Synergi Life, contact renzo.huruiti@dnvgl.com

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