top of page
  • Writer's pictureElina Halonen

The Seven Sins of Memory: why asking about past behaviour isn't enough

Updated: Apr 2

Experts often recommend focusing on past behavior during interviews to gain accurate insights into a person's skills, experiences, and decision-making. However, this approach can overlook the complex nature of human memory and the factors that can distort our recollections. This article explores the "seven sins of memory" and the influence of culture on autobiographical memory, highlighting why behavioral questions alone are not enough to truly understand an individual.


Introduction

Asking the right questions is a critical skill in many professional contexts, from user experience research to job interviews. Recently, an article has been circulating that advocates for a specific approach to questioning. The core advice can be summarized as:

  1. Avoid asking about general behaviours or preferences, and instead ask about specific past situations, decisions, or behaviours.

  2. Avoid asking about hypothetical or future behaviours, and instead ask about similar past experiences.

  3. Avoid asking why someone behaved a certain way, and instead ask about the steps they took and the context surrounding the behaviour.

The rationale behind this advice is that asking people about their past behaviour will yield more accurate and reliable information compared to other types of questions like hypotheticals or generalizations. There is certainly merit to this approach - concrete examples can provide clearer insights into someone's decision making process and capabilities compared to abstract speculation.


However, it's an oversimplification to present this as a universal rule. While questions about past behaviour are valuable, verbal reports about someone's own actions, choices and preferences are susceptible to various memory distortions and cultural influences. Factors like misattribution, suggestibility, and personal biases can warp people's recollections and descriptions of past events. Additionally, cultural elements like predominant self-views, linguistic structures and socialization practices also shape how people perceive, encode, and express memories.


In this article, we will examine seven key "sins" of memory that highlight why questions about someone's past behaviour need to be approached thoughtfully and combined with other lines of investigation to gain a more accurate picture.


If you'd like to read about the impact of culture on autobiographical memory, you can read this article next.


The Seven Sins of Memory

In his book "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers," Daniel Schacter (2001) outlined seven key ways that human memory can be distorted or fail. We can use this as a lens to consider how asking people about their past behaviours, decisions and preferences might not be accurate.


  • Transience refers to the general deterioration of memory over time. Details of events naturally fade and decay in memory, especially when they are not accessed or rehearsed regularly. This means the more time has elapsed between the original event and the questioning about it, the less reliable the responses are likely to be. Asking about more recent situations will generally yield more detailed and accurate recollections than asking about the distant past.

  • Absent-mindedness involves lapses in attention that disrupt memory encoding or retrieval. If someone was distracted or not paying full attention during the original event or decision process, their memory of it will be compromised from the start. Retrieval of encoded memories can also be derailed if the person is preoccupied or unfocused while being questioned. Therefore, responses to questions about past behaviours may omit important details if full attention was not devoted to the situation originally or to the recollection process.

  • Blocking happens when a memory feels like it's on the tip of your tongue, but you can't quite access it. The memory is not gone, but some obstacle is preventing it from being retrieved at that moment. Blocking is often temporary, and the memory may return at a later time. So, just because an interviewee struggles to answer a question about a past event on the spot doesn't necessarily mean the event didn't occur or that they have poor recall in general. Providing various prompts or returning to the question later may help unblock the memory.

  • Misattribution involves correctly recalling bits of information but associating them with the wrong source, context, or timeframe. People may remember a behaviour or outcome but get confused about which specific past situation it applies to. Misattribution also encompasses false recognition, where a novel event is mistakenly identified as a memory. For example, someone may provide a relevant example in response to a question about past behaviour, but that example could potentially be misattributed to the wrong project or decision point.

  • Suggestibility refers to the tendency to incorporate misleading information from external sources into personal memories. If a question is phrased in a leading way or the interviewer unwittingly introduces inaccurate details, then the interviewee may latch onto those cues and report them as their own memory. Because of this, interviewers should be very careful about how they frame questions to avoid planting distorted "memories."

  • Bias involves the distorting influences of current knowledge, beliefs and feelings on memory. People's recollections of past events can be skewed by what they now know or how they now feel. Memories often undergo revisions to maintain internal consistency with the present self-concept, which means answers to questions about past behaviours and decisions may be distorted to fit the interviewee's current self-views, goals and assumptions.

    • Consistency bias: Memories are unconsciously edited and realigned to be more consistent with current attitudes and identity.

    • Egocentric bias: Past events that are unflattering or threatening to self-esteem are reframed in a more positive light.

    • Hindsight bias: In retrospect, past outcomes seem more inevitable or predictable than they actually were at the time.

    • Stereotypical bias: Gaps or ambiguities in memory are filled in based on cultural scripts and stereotypes.

  • Persistence involves intrusive memories that people cannot forget, even if they want to. Some memories, often of traumatic or highly emotional events, remain painfully vivid and continually spring to mind unbidden. While less common than the other sins, persistent memories can be very disruptive. In some cases, an interviewee may fixate on a particular past event and bring it up repeatedly, even when not directly relevant to the question at hand.


While the seven sins of memory can lead to distortions and inaccuracies in people's recollections of the past, it's important to recognize that these "sins" can also serve adaptive functions in memory and cognition. The very features of memory that make it fallible and reconstructive also give it flexibility and efficiency in meeting the demands of everyday life.


Adaptive Functions of Memory Distortions

Although the seven sins of memory can lead to inaccuracies and distortions in our recollections, these quirks of memory may not be entirely maladaptive. In fact, some researchers argue that these sins have persisted throughout human evolution because they provide certain cognitive and social benefits. While they may compromise the precision of our memories, they could also contribute to more efficient and flexible functioning in everyday life:


  • Forgetting irrelevant information: The sins of transience and absent-mindedness can be frustrating in the moment, but they may actually help declutter the mind. By allowing unnecessary details to fade away over time or be overlooked due to attentional lapses, these distortions can free up limited cognitive resources to focus on information that is most relevant to current goals and demands. Forgetting can be functional when it improves the signal-to-noise ratio in memory.

  • Facilitating creativity and productivity: The sins of misattribution and bias can sometimes lead to false memories, but they may also spur creative insights. Mistakenly combining elements of distinct experiences or reinterpreting events to fit current schemas can generate novel connections and ideas. Many creative breakthroughs throughout history have been fuelled by the flexible reconstruction of memory. Accuracy is often less important than utility for productivity.

  • Emotion regulation: Negative experiences are often more vulnerable to the sins of transience and bias than positive ones. This selective forgetting or reframing of adverse events can help people regulate their emotions and maintain psychological well-being. Dwelling excessively on past hurts and failures can lead to rumination and depression. Letting go of the unpleasant details or casting setbacks in a more favourable light can be an adaptive coping mechanism, as long as it doesn't veer into complete denial.

  • Supporting generalization and learning: The ability to abstract general knowledge from specific episodes is critical for learning and prediction. The sins of bias and misattribution can support this process by allowing the mind to gloss over idiosyncratic details and identify common patterns across experiences. Emphasizing the gist or moral of events over precise facts facilitates the transfer of knowledge to new situations. Getting too bogged down in particularities can impede learning.

  • Enabling social learning: Humans are uniquely adapted for social learning, rapidly absorbing information from others without having to experience everything firsthand. The sins of misattribution and suggestibility make this possible by allowing knowledge to spread easily through communication networks. Mixing up the sources of information is a small price to pay for the massive benefits of collective intelligence. Socially shared memory distortions can help coordinate group beliefs and behaviours.

  • Maintaining a coherent life narrative and self-esteem: A stable sense of self is the foundation of personal identity and purposeful action. The sin of bias helps maintain self-coherence by editing and realigning autobiographical memories to fit cultural scripts and current self-views. Selectively remembering the past in ways that emphasize personal growth and agency creates a meaningful life narrative that supports well-being and self-esteem. Some positive illusions about the self appear to be normal and healthy.


Zooming in: Retrospective Biases and Memory

Retrospective biases shape autobiographical memory to create a coherent, consistent, and positive narrative of our lives. While this may compromise the accuracy of our memories, it serves to maintain self-esteem and identity.


  • Consistency bias leads us to remember the past as more aligned with our current attitudes, beliefs, and self-concept. We project our present selves onto the past, perceiving continuity in our identity over time.

  • Positivity bias and rosy retrospection cause us to remember past events more favourably, forgetting negative aspects and emphasizing positive ones. This selective remembering paints a flattering picture of our lives, preserving a positive self-image.

  • Hindsight bias makes past events seem more predictable in retrospect, giving us a sense of understanding and control over our life narrative. We remember ourselves as "knowing it all along," even if we didn't.

  • Egocentric biases lead us to overestimate our role in past events and take more credit for positive outcomes, bolstering our self-esteem and perceived efficacy.

  • Selective forgetting of inconsistent or unflattering information filters out experiences that might contradict our current self-concept or undermine our life stories, preserving a coherent narrative identity.


While these biases are important for supporting a positive sense of self, they can significantly compromise our recall of past behaviour and as such the accuracy of the answers given in an interview.


Effects of the Seven Sins on Recall in Interview Contexts

The seven sins of memory can create issues in various interview settings when people are asked to report on their past experiences, affecting the accuracy and reliability of the information gathered.


Here are some specific examples of how each sin might manifest in UX or market research interviews:

Sin

Description

Example

Transience

Memories naturally fade over time, especially those that are not regularly recalled.

Failure to recall important steps or context from user journeys

Absent-mindedness

Lapses in attention can prevent memories from being properly encoded or retrieved.

Omitting details due to distractions during the original experience or interview

Blocking

Sometimes memories are temporarily inaccessible, even though they are not permanently forgotten.

Inability to articulate specific examples of pain points or delightful interactions on demand

Misattribution

Details of memories can be confused, leading to mistaken recollections about the source, context, or timeframe of an event.

Mixing up details from similar products or user flows

Suggestibility

Memories can be distorted by leading questions, comments, or suggestions from others.

Unintentionally agreeing with leading questions or incorporating interviewer's language

Bias

Current knowledge, beliefs, and feelings can unconsciously skew how past events are remembered and interpreted.

Retrofitting descriptions to fit the current product mental model or brand attitudes

Persistence

Emotionally intense or traumatic memories can be difficult to forget, even when people wish they could

Fixating on a particular interaction or bug disproportionately

The potential consequences of the 7 sins in a UX interview context include:

  • Incomplete or inaccurate journey maps and user flows

  • Misidentification or overemphasis of certain features or issues

  • Skewed prioritization of fixes and enhancements

  • Missed opportunities for probing relevant experiences

  • Over-reliance on a narrow set of non-representative voices


How the 7 sins manifest depends on the situation, so as a balance, here are some examples from job interview contexts:

Sin

Description

Example

Transience

Memories naturally fade over time, especially those that are not regularly recalled.

Vague or fragmented recollections of relevant project details or outcomes

Absent-mindedness

Lapses in attention can prevent memories from being properly encoded or retrieved.

Inconsistent accounts due to attentional lapses during projects or interviews

Blocking

Sometimes memories are temporarily inaccessible, even though they are not permanently forgotten.

Blanking on a particular method or tool under pressure despite familiarity

Misattribution

Details of memories can be confused, leading to mistaken recollections about the source, context, or timeframe of an event.

Claiming credit for a team member's ideas or confusing clients

Suggestibility

Memories can be distorted by leading questions, comments, or suggestions from others.

Mirroring the interviewer's assumptions about organizational processes

Bias

Current knowledge, beliefs, and feelings can unconsciously skew how past events are remembered and interpreted.

Polishing accounts of past performance to fit current self-presentation goals

Persistence

Emotionally intense or traumatic memories can be difficult to forget, even when people wish they could

Digressing into minutiae of a particular failure or conflict

The potential consequences of the 7 sins in a job interview context include:

  • Incomplete pictures of applicants' relevant knowledge and experience

  • Inaccurate assessments of skills and fit with organizational needs

  • Missed red flags or problematic behavioural patterns

  • Infiltration of unexamined assumptions and biases into evaluation criteria

  • Hiring of overconfident or untrustworthy individuals


The Role of Culture

In addition to the seven "sins," cultural factors also shape autobiographical memories in critical ways. Cultural psychologists have documented systematic differences in how people perceive, retain and describe their personal experiences and life stories. For example:

  • Cultural self-views (e.g., individualist vs collectivist) influence the content and framing of personal memories.

  • Linguistic structures and conventions affect how events are encoded and expressed.

  • Child-rearing and socialization practices guide what details are considered memorable and how they are organized into culturally acceptable narratives.


These cultural patterns become entrenched from an early age and continue to mold memories throughout life, often operating outside of conscious awareness. Even individuals who develop a multicultural identity are still influenced by the norms and cognitive habits of their formative cultural contexts.


Conclusion

Questions about past behaviour can yield valuable insights, but they are not a foolproof window into someone's mind and abilities. Memory distortions and cultural influences place constraints on the accuracy and completeness of people's verbal reports. Awareness of these limitations is crucial for designing effective interview strategies.


The seven "sins of memory" demonstrate how even earnest attempts to recall past events faithfully can go astray. Add to that the subtle but pervasive effects of cultural self-construals, linguistic structures, and socialization practices, and it becomes clear that personal memories are not simply retrieved from a static mental archive. Rather, they are actively reconstructed in the moment through the lens of the present self embedded in a particular cultural context.


None of this is to say that behavioural questions are worthless and should be discarded entirely. In fact, a carefully crafted set of questions about past experiences, with ample opportunity for clarification and redirection, can provide a fruitful starting point but they should not be the ending point.


For a more comprehensive and reliable assessment, these questions must be supplemented with other approaches such as:

  • Concrete tasks, work samples or problem-solving exercises

  • Questions that get at motivations, thought processes and situational awareness

  • Hypothetical scenarios to reveal analytical skills and creativity

  • Repetition of questions in different forms at different points in the process

  • For job interviews, consider send questions in advance - particularly if they are very technical in nature - because this allows a candidate to answer more thoughtfully


There is still value in the recommendation to focus on specific instances rather than generalities, and past behaviour over future projections or hypotheticals, but interviewers and researchers must remain acutely aware that even the most detailed and confidently delivered retrospective report should not be taken entirely at face value.


Memories are not recordings but reconstructions and should be treated accordingly!




Summary of the 7 sins and their adaptive functions

578 views0 comments

Comentários


bottom of page