Recent Study, but Not Retrieval, of Knowledge Protects against Learning Errors

By Mullet, Hillary G.; Umanath, Sharda et al. | Memory & Cognition, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Recent Study, but Not Retrieval, of Knowledge Protects against Learning Errors


Mullet, Hillary G., Umanath, Sharda, Marsh, Elizabeth J., Memory & Cognition


Published online: 28 June 2014

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014

Abstract Surprisingly, people incorporate errors into their knowledge bases even when they have the correct knowledge stored in memory (e.g., Fazio, Barber, Rajaram, Ornstein, & Marsh, 2013). We examined whether heightening the accessibility of correct knowledge would protect people from later reproducing misleading information that they encountered in fictional stories. In Experiment 1, participants studied a series of target general knowledge questions and their correct answers either a few minutes (high accessibility of knowledge) or 1 week (low accessibility of knowledge) before exposure to misleading story references. In Experiments 2a and 2b, participants instead retrieved the answers to the target general knowledge questions either a few minutes or 1 week before the rest of the experiment. Reading the relevant knowledge directly before the story-reading phase protected against reproduction of the misleading story answers on a later general knowledge test, but retrieving that same correct information did not. Retrieving stored knowledge from memory might actually enhance the encoding of relevant misinformation.

Keywords Knowledge · False memory · Retrieval · Suggestibility · Fiction

Memory is surprisingly malleable. This claim is supported by many demonstrations in the episodic memory literature (i.e., memory for specific events and experiences), in which people can be easily led to misremember the details of past events and even to report entire events that never occurred (e.g., Loftus, 1975; Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Less clear, however, is whether this same property of malleability applies to the knowledge base. General facts about the world (e.g., the Pacific is the largest ocean) have often been repeatedly encountered and may be associated with supporting knowledge in memory, helping to stabilize access to that information (Myers, O'Brien, Balota, & Toyofuku, 1984). Indeed, following a period of initial decline, access to knowledge of high school classmates' names (Bahrick, Bahrick, & Wittlinger, 1975), algebra (Bahrick & Hall, 1991), and Spanish vocabulary (Bahrick, 1984) remains remarkably stable over a period of 50 years, suggesting that, in contrast to episodic memories, stored knowledge about the world may be more resistant to change (see also Tulving, 1983).

In light of this possibility, it is striking that people leam errors that contradict their stored knowledge. For example, reading stories that contain obviously incorrect assertions (e.g., Exercise weakens the heart and lungs or Seatbelts do not save lives) leads participants to later rate these statements as truer (Prentice, Gerrig, & Bailis, 1997; Rapp, Hinze, Kohlhepp, & Ryskin, 2013; Wheeler, Green, & Brock, 1999). Similarly, readers will reproduce incorrect ideas that they have read in fictional texts (e.g., The Atlantic is the largest ocean), even when those inaccuracies contradict well-known facts (e.g., Marsh, Meade, & Roediger, 2003). Importantly, learners believe that they knew the misinformation before the experiment, indicating that it has been integrated with prior knowledge (Marsh et al., 2003).

If such learning of errors occurred only when people did not have the correct knowledge stored in memory, it would be unsurprising. Without prior knowledge, these would simply be examples of new episodic learning. The effects just described, however, occur even when people have prior knowledge of the correct answers, as has been shown on the basis of norms (Marsh et al., 2003) or a preexperimental (Fazio, Barber, Rajaram, Ornstein, & Marsh, 2013) or postexperimental (Bottoms et al., 2010) knowledge check. One possibility is that such effects occur because not all of the correct knowledge that is stored, or available, in memory is accessible under every circumstance (Bahrick & Hall, 1991; Bahrick & Phelps, 1988; Tulving & Pearlstone, 1966). …

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