Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Spinoza's Error: Memory for Truth and Falsity

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Spinoza's Error: Memory for Truth and Falsity

Article excerpt

Published online: 13 September 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Two theoretical frameworks have been proposed to account for the representation of truth and falsity in human memory: the Cartesian model and the Spinozan model. Both models presume that during information processing a mental representation of the information is stored along with a tag indicating its truth value. However, the two models disagree on the nature of these tags. According to the Cartesian model, true information receives a "true" tag and false information receives a "false" tag. In contrast, the Spinozan model claims that only false information receives a "false" tag, whereas untagged information is automatically accepted as true. To test the Cartesian and Spinozan models, we conducted two source memory experiments in which participants studied true and false trivia statements from three different sources differing in credibility (i.e., presenting 100% true, 50% true and 50% false, or 100% false statements). In Experiment 1, half of the participants were informed about the source credibility prior to the study phase. As compared to a control group, this precue group showed improved source memory for both true and false statements, but not for statements with an uncertain validity status. Moreover, memory did not differ for truth and falsity in the precue group. As Experiment 2 revealed, this finding is replicated even when using a 1-week rather than a 20-min retention interval between study and test phases. The results of both experiments clearly contradict the Spinozan model but can be explained in terms of the Cartesian model.

Keywords Source memory * Memory representation * Truth * Falsity * Multinomial modeling

People steadily encounter a vast amount of information from a variety of sources (e.g., newspaper, television, radio, friends, or colleagues). However, not all information is reliable. Some pieces of information are obviously true (e.g., Paris is the capital of France), whereas others are false (e.g., the Sun revolves around the Earth). For the majority of information, however, the validity status is unknown (e.g., migratory birds fly faster when moving north than when moving south). In these cases, people evaluate whether they consider this information true or false. But what does this evaluation process look like? In the early 1990s, Gilbert and colleagues proposed two theoretical accounts of how people comprehend, evaluate, and represent new information (Gilbert, 1991; Gilbert, Krull, & Malone, 1990; Gilbert, Tafarodi, & Malone, 1993). These accounts are based on the basic ideas of the two philosophers René Descartes (1641/1984) and Baruch Spinoza (1677/2006).

The Cartesian model and the Spinozan model

According to the Cartesian model, a mental representation of incoming information is formed and stored in memory during a first processing stage. If a person has sufficient cognitive capacity to assess the validity of the information, its memory representation is then tagged as true or false during a second processing stage. In contrast, if a person lacks capacity to evaluate the information, the memory representation remains unaltered: "I simply refrain from making a judgment in cases where I do not perceive the truth with sufficient clarity and distinctiveness" (Descartes, 1641/1984, p. 41).

Like the Cartesian model, the Spinozan model assumes that a mental representation of new information is stored in memory during a first processing stage. However, unlike Descartes, Spinoza (1677/2006, p. 52) proposed that "Will and understanding are one and the same." In other words, any information is automatically believed in the first instance (Bennett, 1984). A "false" tag is added to its mental representation only if information is deliberately assessed during a second processing stage and considered to be false. If the information is considered true or if there is not sufficient capacity for a deliberate evaluation process, the representation of the information remains untagged. …

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