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Bartlett (1932)

Background

One of the leading researchers in memory before Bartlett was the German psychologist Ebbinghaus (1885) who tried to study pure memory and forgetting rates by learning nonsense syllables and then reproducing them. Bartlett (1932) developed a different approach to the study of memory when he asked people to reproduce an unfamiliar story they had read. Bartlett found that people changed the story to fit into their existing knowledge. He argued that memory is an active process rather than a passive tape-recording of experience as suggested by Ebbinghaus.

Procedure

The aim of his study was to investigate how memory of a story is affected by previous knowledge. He wanted to see if cultural background and unfamiliarity with a text would lead to distortion of memory when the story was recalled. Bartlett’s hypothesis was that memory is reconstructive and that people store and retrieve information according to expectations formed by cultural schemas.

Bartlett performed a study where he used serial reproduction, which is a technique where participants hear a story or see a drawing and are told to reproduce it after a short time and then to do so again repeatedly over a period of days, weeks, months or years. Bartlett told participants a Native American legend called The War of the Ghosts. The participants in the study were British; for them the story was filled with unknown names and concepts, and the manner in which the story was developed was also foreign to them. The story was therefore ideal to study how memory was reconstructed based on schema processing.

Results

Bartlett found that participants changed the story as they tried to remember it - a process called distortion. Bartlett found that there were three patterns of distortion that took place. Assimilation: The story became more consistent with the participants’ own cultural expectations - that is, details were unconsciously changed to fit the norms of British culture. Leveling: The story also became shorter with each retelling as participants omitted information which was seen as not important. Sharpening: Participants also tended to change the order of the story in order to make sense of it using terms more familiar to the culture of the participants. They also added detail and/or emotions. The participants overall remembered the main themes in the story but changed the unfamiliar elements to match their own cultural expectations so that the story remained a coherent whole although changed.



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