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8.1.8: Autobiographical Memories

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    Sir Frederick Bartlett’s studies

    The English psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett (1886–1969), played a major role in the psychological study of memory; particularly the cognitive and social processes of remembering. Bartlett created short stories that were in some ways logical but also contained some very unusual and unexpected events. Bartlett discovered that people found it very difficult to recall the stories exactly, even after being allowed to study them repeatedly, and he hypothesized that the stories were difficult to remember because they did not fit the participants’ expectations about how stories should go.

    Bartlett (1995 [1932]) is perhaps most famous for his method of repeated reproduction. He used many different written texts with this method but in "Remembering" he confined himself to an analysis of participants' reproductions of the native American folk tale War of the Ghosts (see below), while keeping in mind throughout corroborative detail from the use of other material. The story is particularly apt to the task because it involves numerous narrative disjuncture’s, seeming lack of logic, strange and vivid imagery, among other puzzling elements. French anthropologist LÉVY-BRUHL would have interpreted the story as a good example of "primitive mentality" (WAGONER, 2012). For Bartlett, the striking difference to British ways of thinking provided a powerful illustration of the process of conventionalization. He says, "I wished particularly to see how educated and rather sophisticated subjects would deal with this lack of obvious rational order" (1995 [1932], p.64). [37]

    The War of the Ghosts

    The War of the Ghosts was a story used by Sir Frederic Bartlett to test the influence of prior expectations on memory. Bartlett found that even when his British research participants were allowed to read the story many times they still could not remember it well, and he believed this was because it did not fit with their prior knowledge.

    One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war-cries, and they thought: “Maybe this is a war- party.” They escaped to the shore, and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said:

    “What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people.”

    One of the young men said, “I have no arrows.” “Arrows are in the canoe,” they said.

    “I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you,” he said, turning to the other, “may go with them.”

    So one of the young men went, but the other returned home.

    And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, “Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit.” Now he thought: “Oh, they are ghosts.” He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot.

    So the canoes went back to Egulac and the young man went ashore to his house and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: “Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick.”

    He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried.

    He was dead. (Bartlett, 1932)Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Bartlett had Cambridge students, colleagues and other residents of Cambridge read the story twice at regular reading speed.17) After a period of approximately 15 minutes, participants wrote out the story down by hand on a sheet of paper as best they could remember it. This was repeated several times at increasing time intervals—in one case ten years later. The reproductions produced by each participant were analyzed as a series or chain, exploring what was added, deleted, and transformed from the original to first reproduction and from one reproduction to the next. In his analysis, Bartlett provides readers with a full series of reproductions for particularly illustrative cases and a detailed analysis of the changes introduced, and then elaborates on the general trends found across his sample. As mentioned above, his analysis incorporates participants' introspective reports in order to understand the interpretive and affective processes that lead to the transformations introduced into their reproductions. One participant provided the following detailed account (abbreviated here) at the first reproduction:

    "When I read the story ... I thought the main point was the reference to the ghosts who were went off to fight the people further on ... I wrote out the story mainly by following my own images. I had a vague feeling of the style. There was a sort of rhythm about it I tried to imitate. I can't understand the contradiction about somebody being killed, and the man's being wounded, but feeling nothing. At first I thought there was something supernatural about the story. Then I saw that Ghosts must be a class, or clan name. That made the whole thing more comprehensible" (p.68). [39]

    Bartlett notes that strict accuracy of reproduction is the exception rather than the rule. The most significant changes to the story were made on the first reproduction, which set the form, scheme, order, and arrangement of material for subsequent reproductions.18) However, as more time went by there was a progressive omission of details, simplification of events and transformation of items into the familiar. Some of the most common and persistent changes were "hunting seals" into "fishing," "canoes" into "boats," the omission of the excuse that "we have no arrows," transformations of the proper names (i.e., Egulac and Kalama) before they disappeared completely, and the precise meaning of the "ghosts." Whenever something seemed strange or incomprehensible it was either omitted completely or rationalized. For example, the "something black" that comes out of the Indian's mouth was frequently understood as the materialization of his breath and in at least one case as "his soul" leaving his body. The second meaning given to an item often appeared only in participants' introspective reports on the first reproduction but in subsequent reproductions it took the place of the original. In other cases, rationalization happened without the person's awareness, as when "hunting seals" became "fishing." [41]

    This page titled 8.1.8: Autobiographical Memories is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mehgan Andrade and Neil Walker.