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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 28-Aug-09

 


Friday 28-August-09

Does description help or hinder memory?

There are two schools of thought about remembering something. First, verbal or written descriptions would seem to increase the ability to remember, such as where an accident witness hurries home and writes down what happened. However, even short-term memory is hazy and an effect called 'verbal overshadowing' can occur, where the words in the description effectively replace or distort the original memory.

The question was tested by psychologists Angus Hughson and Robert Boakes, who gave 20 novice and 20 established, but non-expert, wine drinkers wine samples. After a break, they were then asked to identity that same wine from a choice of four alternatives. Half were asked to provide a written description of the target wine during the break, whilst the others completed a crossword.

Overall and as might be expected, the more experienced wine drinkers were better at identifying the original wine. However this was not by a particularly large margin. Much more significant was whether the person had written a description. There are not many common words for describing taste, yet whatever they made up seemed to work.

From this it seems that writing things down overshadows verbal overshadowing, so if you want to remember something, write it down!

This experiment does not prove that overshadowing never works in any circumstance, but it does show that just because a theory exists, it is not universally applicable and a simple experiment can cast significant doubt.


Reference:
Hughson, A. and Boakes, R. (2008). Passive perceptual learning in relation to wine: Short-term recognition and verbal description. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 62 (1), 1-8


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