The Dangers of Relying on Long-Term Memory in Decision Making

I often get challenged when I suggest that most of us have pretty poor long term recall. Admittedly, I too once believed that about myself – and worse, I still do believe that! And this committed, falsely held opinion is the very essence of why business leaders and decision makers can NOT rely on memory to make decisions today.

In spite of thinking you have the ‘memory of an elephant’, the brain knows otherwise.

Long term memory resides in an area of the brain called the Hypocampus. Alcohol interferes with forming long term memory, as does being relaxed. At the opposite end of the scale, fear strengthens memory. This is why we remember events connected to strong emotions. This is because emotions use the same part of the brain as long term memory.

To remember something long term, the brain must make chemical pathways or connections between brain cells. And it helps when those brain cells co-exist in the same part of the brain. Eye witness accounts are typically very unreliable, despite the person truly believing they are representing an accurate account. For instance:

  • Color is inaccurate
  • The brain adds logically expected items
  • Tunnel vision is common – don’t see beyond the zone of activity related to stress. This disturbs recall outside a few details

For these reasons, it is not difficult for a skilled person to change people memories. Lawyers use the minds infallibility all the time to confuse and trick witnesses – at times resulting in prosecution of the innocent and freedom of the guilty.

Juries are very convinced by eye witnesses. Studies have shown that 54% of jurors swing their decision between guilty and not guilty based on eye witness accounts that are ‘guided’ by the lawyer’s questions. It has also been found that 95% of convictions overturned by DNA were originally convicted based on eye witnesses accounts.

So before you start getting defensive about being the exception to the rule, and priding yourself on your excellent memory, just remember, data-driven evidence does not lie.

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