Subjective Memories Drive Our Decision-Making

Subjective memories are those vivid, emotional impressions we relive when recalling a past experience. Discover how they affect our decision-making and why they may not be in our best interest.

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there, Mark Twain was fond of saying. “Lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again, and that is well, but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

We remember an experience in two ways. We recall the facts and evidence of what took place. We also remember how the experience made us feel. The two kinds of memories seem only loosely connected.

Many of us feel intuitively that memories of how an experience affected our emotions are the stronger of the two memory types. Maya Angelou, for example, wrote that ““I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I Have Many Things On Which to Look Back

Having reached my seventh decade of life, I have many things on which to look back. When I think about childhood memories, like being loved or being bullied, I often can’t place them in a historical context.

Even so, I can definitely remember the ecstasy of my first kiss. I also remember the humiliation of being assaulted by an older, bigger and stronger tormentor while nobody, including teachers, intervened. Boys will be boys, after all!

A study published last week in the journal eLife sheds some fresh light on the way our memories function. It seems that the impression many of us have is accurate; we have two memories of any given experience.

We Have Two Memories of Any Given Experience

Psychologists call the first type of memory our objective memory. It deals with facts about the experience, the who, what, where, when, and why of the event.

The other memory type is subjective memory. It’s the feeling we have of reliving the event when it comes to mind. As many of us suspect, it’s much more enduring and vivid than our objective memory.

The study comes from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. The researchers found that our objective and subjective memories tend to work separately.

Memory Types Involved Different Brain Structures

The two memory types involve different brain structures. As both Mark Twain and Maya Angelou implied, we make decisions based mainly on our subjective memory.

We might not admit this, even to ourselves. Even so, we make choices based more on the feelings our memories trigger than on the historical accuracy of our recollections.

Simona Ghetti is a professor at the UC Davis Department of Psychology and Center for Mind and Brain. She’s one of the study’s co-authors.

“Decision Making Depends on Subjective Evaluation”

She explained the research findings this way. ““The study distinguishes between how well we remember and how well we think we remember and shows that decision making depends primarily on the subjective evaluation of memory evidence.”

The team conducted the study using a group of volunteers. They began the exercise by showing each subject a series of photographs of everyday objects.

Then, the investigators started a second round. This time, they showed each subject a pair of images and asked them to identify which of the two images was one that they had seen in the first round.

“Vividly Recollected” or Merely Looked “Familiar”

Their researchers also asked whether the memory they experienced was “vividly recollected” or merely looked “familiar.” Sometimes the two images were similar, and other times they were altogether irrelevant to one another.

The experiment’s agenda enabled the researchers to measure which memories were more precise. They could also tell which were objective versus subjective.

In the final round of the experiment, researchers asked each subject to sort the remembered images into those they wanted to keep and those they didn’t. Their findings confirmed what many of us believe intuitively.

Used Objective Memory with Similar Pictures

Subjects tended to use objective memory when they looked at similar pictures. When they looked at unrelated images, participants reported more vivid memories. When asked whether to keep or trash a photo, the volunteers made their decisions based on how the photos made them feel.

While all this was going on, the team scanned each subject’s brain using functional MRI. Researchers could see those objective memories called up different places in the brain than subjective memories.

Objective memories work with places in the brain that also relate to our decision-making processes. The results indicate that we feel more attached to our subjective memories and base our choices on personal rather than objective recollections of events.

Tendency to Make Decisions on Subjective Memory

This human tendency to make decisions based on subjective memory is revealing. We’re the only species on Earth endowed with the gift of reason. So it’s deeply disappointing that we would make our life choices based primarily on impressions of how we felt in the past.

Do I tend to challenge people I deem to be aggressors because of that childhood memory? Probably. Is that always a good thing? Probably not always, but it’s who I am at this late stage.

Might Make the World a Better Place

It’s probably good that people who work with kids take bullying a lot more seriously than they did half a century ago. A generation that doesn’t make choices based on negative childhood experiences might make the world a better place than we did.

Team member Yana Fandakova is an investigator at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development. She summed up the value of the findings, saying, “By understanding how our brains give rise to vivid subjective memories and memory decisions, we are moving a step closer to understanding how we learn to evaluate memory evidence in order to make effective decisions in the future.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Making Decisions Based on How We Feel About Memories, Not Accuracy
Distinct neural mechanisms underlie subjective and objective recollection and guide memory-based decision making
Benefits of Nature Confirmed by Science
Patience: Where It Comes from and Why
Dogmatic People Are Less Likely to Check Their Facts

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