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Memories Are Made of ... Who Knows?

We all know memory can play tricks on us, but could we have gotten our childhood all wrong? It's possible, judging by an unusual longitudinal study of men who answered the same questions at 14 and again at age 48.

In 1962, psychiatrist Daniel Offer of Northwestern University asked 73 male high school freshman in Chicago questions about their parents, home, friends, and school. Years later Offer was able to locate 67 of the group and ask them the same questions about their adolescence.

It turns out that these men--normal, healthy middle-class types--held memories of their youths that had little to do with what they had reported at 14. Indeed, "accurate memory was generally no better than expected by chance," the researchers report in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. While 61% of the 14-year-olds said that playing sports and other physical activities were their favorite pastimes, for instance, only 23% of the 48-year-olds remembered it that way. And 58% of the men remembered hating schoolwork, though as adolescents just 28% said they didn't like it. The 48-year-olds also seemed to have forgotten their earlier views on religion, their parents' best and worst traits, and whether they found discipline "upsetting." They approached accurate recall on only three matters: the importance of having a girlfriend, the expectation of earning more than one's father, and parental encouragement in sports.

The results suggest that people's memories are "even poorer than we thought," concludes Offer. They also contradict the notion that events laden with emotional significance are remembered more accurately, the authors say.

The study is "fascinating," says psychologist Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Washington, Seattle. It shows that even healthy people can't be relied on to give accurate accounts of their childhood, she says, and it bears on the heated controversy over the reliability of peoples' memories of child sexual abuse. Clinicians taking a patient's history, she warns, "should be very wary."