Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Wishful Thinking and Source Monitoring

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Wishful Thinking and Source Monitoring

Article excerpt

Memory distortions sometimes serve a purpose: It may be in our interest to misremember some details of an event or to forget others altogether. The present work examines whether a similar phenomenon occurs for source attribution. Given that the source of a memory provides information about the accuracy of its content, people may be biased toward source attributions that are consistent with desired accuracy. In Experiment 1, participants read desirable and undesirable predictions made by sources differing in their a priori reliability and showed a wishful thinking bias-that is, a bias to attribute desirable predictions to the reliable source and undesirable predictions to the unreliable source. Experiment 2 showed that this wishful thinking effect depends on retrieval processes. Experiment 3 showed that under some circumstances, wishes concerning one event can produce systematic source memory errors for others.

The origin of a message-hence, the origin of one's memory for it-is often diagnostic of how trustworthy the message's content is. Information about the reliability of a new car deserves different treatment if read in a Consumer Reports article than if read in a magazine ad or an e-mail from a friend. According to the source monitoring framework of Johnson and colleagues (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993; Johnson & Raye, 1981), memories typically are not explicitly tagged with source information. Rather, cues intrinsic to the memory are used to reconstruct its source. A memory of reading large print with lots of exclamation points would, for example, be a cue that the information about the car had come from a magazine ad.

Several types of cues are used to identify a memory's source, such as perceptual details about the remembered event and information about the cognitive processes that occurred when the memory was created (Johnson, Foley, Suengas, & Raye, 1988). For the most part, people attribute memories to the source for which the qualities of the memory's features (e.g., vividness) are most characteristic (see Johnson et al., 1993, for a review). Although source monitoring can occasionally be inaccurate, it seems to be designed to operate in a sensible manner, by relying on features with values empirically correlated with the various candidate sources (e.g., Intraub & Huffman, 1992; Johnson, Foley, & Leach, 1988).

However, source monitoring doesn't always produce accurate attributions. Previous work has shown that cases of inaccuracy typically derive from the use of otherwise appropriate heuristics on anomalous items, such as particularly vivid mental images (Johnson & Raye, 1981), invalid schematic information (Sherman & Bessenoff, 1999), or guessing errors. Even a system that is designed to make rational decisions sometimes produces errors. The present work addresses one way in which source attributions may be influenced by goals other than accuracy. That is, we have identified a factor that systematically contributes to the decision despite being uncorrelated with source.

Consider again that you are trying to identify the source of your memory for information about a car. It may be that you encountered this information as a casual reader and have no vested interest in the car's quality. In that case, you would probably use intrinsic characteristics of the memory, as described above, to make a source attribution.

Alternatively, you may have a vested interest in the car's quality (for example, because you've just bought one). If source monitoring is affected by a wishful thinking bias, your desire to own a good car might lead you to attribute the rave review to a reliable source, like a Consumer Reports article. Similarly, and for the same reason, you might be biased to attribute a negative review to an ad from a competing company.

Certainly, accuracy in source monitoring serves people's best interests. Even if accurate source decisions have unpleasant implications, they generally can guide our beliefs and actions most appropriately. …

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