Memory Bias: 5 Ways To Stop Your Mind From Deceiving You

| Memory

memory bias feature imageSuffering from memory bias is very common.

As is suffering from cognitive biases overall.

Many critical thinkers, psychologists and philosophers have pointed out that the key to living a happier life is to reduce every negative cognitive bias that you possibly can.

Is doing so a difficult mission?


But when you understand the variety of memory biases out there, nothing could be easier.

And on this page, I’m sharing descriptions, examples and resources that will help you reduce their impact in your life.

Can I share something weird with you before we get started, though?

Here it is:

Not all cognitive biases are bad.

Our brains simply must take shortcuts in order to survive.

Yet, we can develop an awareness of what these shortcuts are and why the brain is taking them.

With that level of “meta consciousness” established, we can lead better lives.

So if you’re ready to understand what these biases are and benefit from the useful ones while reducing the impact of the damaging memory biases, let’s dive in.

What Is A Memory Bias?

Put simply, a memory bias is a mental operation that usually takes place unconsciously.

It’s like a shortcut, often called a “heuristic” by psychologists like Daniel Khaneman in landmark books like Thinking, Fast and Slow.

There are many kinds of biases, and it’s important to note that psychologists give them names by way of bringing clarity to what the human mind is and how it works. It’s like implicit and explicit memory, two terms that help us see the difference between memories we draw upon consciously and those we draw upon unconsciously.

Woman resting in car to illustrate how memory bias is usually unconscious

Many memory biases are unconscious, which may be part of why we sometimes use the phrase “asleep at the wheel” to describe how people take mental shortcuts that lead to less than ideal outcomes.

And that’s important to understand. Most of our memory biases are unconscious. They’re difficult to detect as a result.

Yet, they can powerfully force you to associative negativity to neutral aspects of life.

For example, you may have heard someone say they’re a “burnt child.”

I just said this myself. Earlier today I met a marketing agent representative and she asked me if I had any hesitations about working with her agency.

“Yes,” I explained. “I have a history of working with companies and individuals that made huge promises but failed to deliver.”

My leaning toward the negative experiences shines poorly on this new company who wants my business. That’s because my memory is delivering up a bias towards being let down.

Counterintuitively, this company could be the best possible agency to help me, and I might never know if my memory bias wins and I decide to decline their offer.

On the positive side, you can think of companies you’ve used for years and would never change. That is the positive side of a memory bias, and it can keep you in good stead.

Unless this positivity bias prevents you from leaving a company because you’re stuck with previous memories of good service. Your mind could be “tricking” you into holding on longer than you should because it tells you things will get better.

So the question is:

How do we spot these biases and reduce or eliminate the bad ones from our lives? The first step is to get more familiar with what they are and how they work.

5 Types of Memory Bias You Need To Master

As we go through this list, I’ll share with you references and examples.

If you want to learn them all and remember the details, I suggest learning how to use a Memory Palace. It’s a fun and cool way to learn faster and retain more.

Also, note that these memory biases are in no particular order of importance. In reality, they’re all important and they all influence each and every person in different ways.

Do all biases relate to memory?

I believe so. That’s because they’re all taking place in the brain which involves many types of memory, ranging from procedural memory, episodic memory, autobiographical memory, explicit memory, implicit memory, prospective memory and more.

With that in mind, let’s look at the most key biases related to memory directly. And let’s discuss how to use them well or reduce their impact.

One: Memories Are Not Recordings

A lot of my students in the Magnetic Memory Method Masterclass tell me that they want eidetic memory. This is the scientific term for what people often call photographic memory.

Therein lies the rub.

black and white photos to illustrate that memory is more like a process

Memory is more like a process than a photograph, yet we are biased to think of our memories as picture perfect.

Memory is like neither a movie or a photograph. It’s a process that is always changing.

Dr. Gary Small likens our memory to a neighborhood filled with traffic and people moving around from house to house. Our memories literally travel around the brain over time, just as humans move around the world. And just as we change when we travel, our memories change as they move around the brain.

Yet, we have a bias towards thinking of our memories as static and unchanging. This simple is not true, expect perhaps when it comes to semantic facts, and that’s assuming we remember information about words and numbers correctly.

In reality, memories can be implanted and they transform all the time without us even knowing.

Using memory techniques frequently is a great way to help keep your facts straight, but we all need to be open to the fact that we could be wrong. And when we are, we need to use those same techniques to help us update the information.

Two: Bad Habits Don’t Necessarily Fade

I’ll never forget the day I realized that I am my father’s son.

I’d been meditating for a number of years and finally gained enough to detachment to observe myself dispassionately much of the time.

I noticed that I would freak out a lot like he did. Especially when I followed in his footsteps of drinking too much, which gave me a beergut.

extinction bias illustration of beer and a beer gut

Extinction bias happens when you commit to quitting a habit. It can force you to return to it even stronger than before.

I’m not talking about throwing a tantrum, necessarily. It’s more about finding it very difficult to handle things not going smoothly.

Then I would commit to not being like my dad, only to find myself… being just like my dad when I failed at this commitment.

Why does this happen?

Psychologists call this phenomenon an “extinction burst.” One way of looking at it has to do with how the values of our parents rub off on us. Dr. Nick Bendit has related how this happens to us in relation to implicit memory in his research.

I personally respond a lot to his research findings because even though I’ve found great peace over the years (as reported in The Victorious Mind), trying to avoid these habits engrained deeply from birth remains incredibly tricky.

As an exercise, you can journal for self improvement outcomes to help discover where you might have habits that seem to get even stronger after you commit to removing them.

And don’t worry. As reported on Psychology Today, even if the solution to these bad habits might involve “giving in,” it doesn’t mean giving up. And you can really can improve by applying self reflection exercises and simply understanding that this memory bias exists.

In my case, it’s not all bad. Far from it.

When I explored more of my father’s character in me, I also found more inner strength to draw upon. He’s a survivor, after all, and tremendously skilled and creative person. His accomplishments are astonishing and journaling about it helped me realize that and let bygones be bygones.

Three: Recency Bias

If you’ve ever heard that some people have a memory bias toward items at the end of a list, this notion is often true.

Recency bias causes some of us to take into account more recent events. It can be so strong that the brain practically wipes out years of data, not just the details at the beginning of a list.

I have this bias quite badly myself. Often when I look at how my business is doing, my brain takes into account only the past three weeks. It’s like it erases the entire history of my work and I start to freak out.

The best solution for this one is to know what it is and feed yourself with the larger context. It will help unlock your memory from its focus on just the past few weeks. Keeping a memory journal is a key strategy that will give you rapid access to more information, something Johaness Mallow and I discussed recently on the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast.

You can also reexamine your goals. For example, if you find yourself only focusing on your most recent results on an academic exam, you may benefit by looking at the larger picture.

Once, while I was a graduate student, my dissertation supervisor told me that the job situation looked bleak. Although I was frustrated by his statement and could not deny the evidence, I looked at the big picture.

By realizing that things were indeed in decline recently, I decided not to abandon my doctoral studied. Although I no longer work as a university professor, deciding to finish was very important for my mental well-being and gave me valuable skills and credentials that have served many times since.

But had I let his recency bias influence me to quit, I would have missed out on so many positive experience.

Four: Hindsight Bias

“I told you so.”

Have you ever said that to someone?

Chances are, your memory is playing tricks on you. This is because hindsight bias causes us to believe we knew something all along, when in reality, the result has distorted our memory of the bigger picture.

woman at a desk to illustrate hindsight bias

Hindsight bias is negative when people say “I told you so.” They often don’t realize that their memory changed their perception of reality. This bias can have positive aspects, however.

In my life, I’ve experienced this in a somewhat positive way. True, this example somewhat strokes my ego, but check it out and tell me what you think.

When I finally decided to write for a living, once I started seeing success, I had the feeling that if I had only started sooner, I would have been able to enjoy this career sooner.

Now, this feeling is probably a distortion. The more likely scenario is that I probably wasn’t mature enough to make it as a professional writer. But my hindsight bias that I was always “destined” to write for my living actually helps drive me forward and continue doing it.

Overall, however, this bias is not great. To fix hindsight bias, you can think through “counterfactuals.” This means considering how things could have been different, as I did in the example above. Scientists have validated that this approach helps avoid this bias, or at least have clarity around it.

Five: One Example Is Rarely Enough

The availability bias is a mental shortcut, and a particularly nasty one.

You see it whenever someone tells you, “None of my friends have this problem.”

Or, you might hear about a crime in a neighborhood you want to move into. Because you’ve found one example, the availability bias digs the impression deep into your mind that this particular place is dangerous.

A major time this happened to me took place shortly before I moved to Brisbane. I read in the news that a year before we made the move, someone had set a bus driver on fire.

It’s a really hard bias to deal with because instantly my mind decided that Brisbane must be a very dangerous place.

But because I knew about this bias, I knew that this one case was no way to make such a decision. And as it turns out, Brisbane is actually great.

There’s an old story about Socrates meeting two visitors to Athens that illustrates this bias in a different way.

As the story goes, one traveler asked Socrates what Athens was like. Before answering, Socrates asked, “What’s it like where you come from?”

The traveler said, “Oh, it’s noisy, people are rude and always in a hurry.” Socrates replied: “Yes, it’s like that here too.”

When another traveler approached Socrates with a question about Athens, Socrates also asked his question before answering. In this case, the traveler said, “Where I come from, the people are friendly, help each other and do all they can to lead great lives.’

“Yes,” Socrates said, “it’s like that here too.”

Does It Matter That We All Suffer From Memory Bias?

As the story with Socrates illustrates, we’re all biased and more than one thing can be true at the same time without contradiction.

But it really helps when we can become aware of these biases and reduce their negative impact in our lives. And philosophy is another important tool that can help us in addition to generally learning about these psychological quirks we all share.

Our biases can be beneficial too, such as when journaling creates self awareness and change.

And it is always good when we know what’s going on in our minds and can self-reflexively correct our behaviors.

So we all have every reason to study multiple biases, commit them to memory and work to minimize their impact in our lives, while utilizing them when they’re useful.

If you need help with the memory part, please sign up for my FREE Memory Improvement Kit:

Free Memory Improvement Course

It will help you learn all of the biases we talked about today much faster.

And when your memory starts bringing them to mind as you navigate the world, you’ll enjoy a much better life than you probably ever imagined possible.

The best part?

Your memory biases won’t distort or exaggerate a thing!

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