Memory functioning gradually develops with increasing age. This is because as we age, we are learning more strategies, such as rehearsing or organisation of facts, to store and remember things and events. Furthermore, the older we get, the more general processing abilities (like the processing power of a computer) does our brain have to use these methods efficiently.
Many people think of memories as perfect recordings of what has happened. However, this is not the case. Memory can be influenced and changed by various things such our emotions that can direct what we pay attention to.
Since memory can be prone to errors, psychology research has investigated false memories. One of those false memories is an error in recognising memories. This means that people will think they have seen or experienced something, that they have not actually seen before. These types of memory errors can be studied by a task called Deese/ Roediger-McDermott task (DRM).
[ show both children performing task, older child with more false memories]
In a DRM task, a participant is shown a list of words to remember that are all semantically related (for example: hot, ice, snow, white). They are then presented with a list of words and asked whether they remember the words being on the first list. One of the words is related but was previously not shown (cold). It is very common that people also think they remember the previously not shown word, to be on the list they were shown.
Interestingly, researchers have found that the older children get, the more likely they are to produce false memories. There are two theories on why that is. Researchers suggested the “Fuzzy Trace Theory” to explain this phenomenon. According to this, memory is divided into gist traces and verbatim traces. While gist traces are for the general meaning, verbatim is more specific but also fade quicker. Since younger children are less able to understand the general meaning of things, but get better as they get older, they will me more likely to have false memories as they grow older. More recent research, however, provided an alternative explanation. The “Associative Activation Processes Theory” suggests that false memories occur since one word that is being processed (snow), will make us remember related concepts that we know (ice, cold). Since people get better at organising their knowledge, the older they get, older children are more likely to have false memories than younger children. The second theory seems more plausible as research has shown that when the associative strength was increased by using specific words that are highly related, false memories occurred more often, but improving the gist by using categories of related words, made no difference.
Another aspect of memory development that researchers have investigated is the quality of memories. For example, a study that tried to dissect recognition memory tested whether participants actively remember or think they know items that were previously shown by asking them whether an item seemed familiar (know) and how many times it appeared (remember). They found that 5-year-olds were much worse at remembering than all older participants, which suggests that remembering improves steeply around that age. However, being familiar with words seemed to increase over age only slowly, as 5-year-olds only did worse than the adults, but not other ages in between.
Similarly, studies have investigated false memories while distracting the participant’s attention away to other things to only allow shallow remembering of words. The children’s rate of false memories in this case depended on the overall correctly remembered words, whereas the adults’ false memories remained the same. The finding that children’s false memories rate changes based on attention or depth of processing, suggests that not only does memory between children and adults differ in the amount that they can recall, but also how they remember things.
Brainerd, C. J., & Reyna, V. F. (2005). The science of false memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Howe, M. L. (2006). Developmentally invariant dissociations in children’s true and false memories: Not all relatedness is created equal. Child Development, 77, 1112-1123.
Howe, M. L., Wimmer, M. C., & Blease, K. (2009). The role of associative strength in children’s false memory illusions. Memory, 17(1), 8-16.
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Wimmer, M. C., & Howe, M. L. (2010). Are children’s memory illusions created differently from those of adults? Evidence from levels-of-processing and divided attention paradigms. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 107(1), 31-49.