The Truth Is Out There: Accuracy in Recall of Verifiable Real-World Events

Psychol Sci. 2020 Dec;31(12):1544-1556. doi: 10.1177/0956797620954812. Epub 2020 Nov 23.


How accurate is memory? Although people implicitly assume that their memories faithfully represent past events, the prevailing view in research is that memories are error prone and constructive. Yet little is known about the frequency of errors, particularly in memories for naturalistic experiences. Here, younger and older adults underwent complex real-world experiences that were nonetheless controlled and verifiable, freely recalling these experiences after days to years. As expected, memory quantity and the richness of episodic detail declined with increasing age and retention interval. Details that participants did recall, however, were highly accurate (93%-95%) across age and time. This level of accuracy far exceeded comparatively low estimations among memory scientists and other academics in a survey. These findings suggest that details freely recalled from one-time real-world experiences can retain high correspondence to the ground truth despite significant forgetting, with higher accuracy than expected given the emphasis on fallibility in the field of memory research.

Keywords: aging; autobiographical memory; episodic memory; false memory; forgetting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Humans
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Mental Recall
  • Surveys and Questionnaires