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Post No.: 0510misattribution


Furrywisepuppy says:


We often focus on a fact or story whilst ignoring the source of that fact (or ‘fact’) or story, even though the source will help tell us the reliability of it. We could be listening to mere gossip or a biased news source, yet we might pay more attention to the content of a message than to information that infers its reliability, particularly if it’s a message that confirms our existing beliefs.


We should indeed listen more to what was said rather than who said it, yet we mustn’t completely dismiss the latter for they might not be an impartial or accurate source. A consequence if we do is that we can end up with a view of the world that is simpler and more coherent than the data justifies. ‘Source misattribution’ occurs when we attribute comforting but dubious information that confirms our existing preconceptions to more credible sources. A story, or the gist of one, can have much the same effect on our associative memories regardless of whether it is a true news report or a synopsis of a movie. The media, which include fictional movies, play a major role in shaping our cultures and beliefs, such as our conceptions of stereotypes. Most people hold the misconception that wild monkeys primarily eat farmed bananas (those yellow ones we typically see in the greengrocers) because that’s depicted and reinforced so much in cartoons, for instance. Due to the operation of associative memory, some people can even confuse the attributes of an actor with a character they play in a drama.


Ideas that have been evoked in our minds will automatically trigger many other related ideas in a cascade (‘associative activation’). For instance, a particular word will evoke particular memories and images, which in turn will evoke particular emotions, facial expressions and so on. So thinking about the word ‘pig’ may, right now, evoke bacon, deliciousness and salivation, or oinking, the day you visited a pig farm when young and the distinctive smell of that farm, which might’ve been an unpleasant experience, which will in turn affect you physiologically at this moment with a frown or some other emotion personally related to the word for you. This thus yields a self-reinforcing pattern of cognitively, emotionally and physically connected and associatively coherent responses that can be both diverse yet integrated.


We automatically respond to an emotive word or phrase with an attenuated version of how we’d react to the actual object or event. A phrase like ‘apples vomit’ causes us to assume a causal connection between the words, which can temporarily result in an aversion to apples, as well as being unusually ready to recognise and respond to any object or concept associated with ‘vomit’ (e.g. sick, hangover) and any object or concept associated with ‘apples’ (e.g. fruit, green). You may also not have encountered this phrase before so you may experience mild surprise towards it too. All this happens quickly, automatically and effortlessly – you did not will it to happen and you could not stop it from happening. Ideas can be associated via, for example, their resemblance, contiguity in time or place, causality, properties and the object categories they apparently belong to. They can be concrete or abstract, and can be expressed in many ways.


Ideas or memories are like nodes in a vast network in which each idea or memory is linked or related to many others – and this is what ‘associative memory’ in psychology is about. An activated idea doesn’t merely evoke one other idea but a cascade of many ideas, which in turn can activate others; although increasingly diminishingly. But only a few of these ideas will register in our consciousness. The notion that we have limited access to the inner workings of our minds – that most of what happens in our brains is unconscious – is difficult to accept because it seems contrary to our personal subjective experience; but we know far less about ourselves than we feel or think we do.


A misattribution of memory arises when information is retained in memory but the original source of that memory is forgotten. ‘False memories’ (including the so-called ‘Mandela effect’, where a false memory can be shared by multiple people) are thus a form of misattribution where imaginations are mistaken for genuinely memorised real events. Suggestibility also sometimes involves misattribution when the ideas suggested by another person are mistaken for genuine memories, hence they’re more likely to be accepted and acted upon.


‘Cryptomnesia’ is the reverse of a false memory – it’s a form of misattribution where a genuine memory of a real event is mistaken for an imagined event or a new or original idea, because one cannot remember it being a real memory.


Related to suggestibility and the misattribution of memory is the ‘misinformation effect’, where a memory becomes less accurate because of interference or contamination from post-event information, as in information that people (wittingly or unwittingly) plant in our heads about an event but after the event. This is a problem when eyewitnesses discuss their recalls of an event together before they each officially give their individual eyewitness statements to the police.


There is also sometimes a misattribution of emotions – we can assume the source of our affect (emotions) was one thing when it was really another thing that was happening concurrently. One example is the enjoyment of a particular wine when one was on holiday, when it was really the enjoyment of the entire occasion and company – hence that wine won’t taste as good if just drank alone at home (but one will have probably ordered a crate of it to be sent home already!) This is basically ‘system one’ assuming correlation is always causation i.e. the drinking of that particular wine and the happy occasion are correlated, but it was really the happy holiday occasion that caused the wine to taste better rather than drinking that wine that made one happy.


We have our physiological responses – such as an increased heart rate, sweating and shallower breathing – and then we have our cognitive interpretations or attributions for them. These two are separate parts of the process and this is how we can misattribute causes for our physiological responses. For instance, you might have had too much caffeine but misattribute your heightened feelings of anxiety to the presence of a particular stranger. Or when talking to someone when you’re both on a wobbly bridge, you could misattribute your increased heart rate, which is really due to the fear of standing on that wobbly bridge, to fluffy feelings of heart-fluttering lust towards the other person. This may explain the often-used cliché of two people launching at each other to make love right in the middle of having a fight with each other! This doesn’t really happen in real-life as often as it’s depicted in the movies though because feelings of disgust and contempt towards another person don’t suddenly switch to desire so easily. But when you don’t have such conflicting emotions then it can be easy to misattribute physiological responses to the wrong causes.


Adverts and brands try to get us to make emotional misattributions all of the time, such as by using attractive models in commercials in an attempt to make us associate the emotional and physiological responses we feel towards them with the product being advertised. Movies also use such tricks, like when rising tense music in horror movies try to make the audience feel scared during a scene… but then it’s just a false alarm and nothing dreadful actually happens, hence it wasn’t about anything that was actually present in the scene that caused us to feel that way but just the musical score that manipulated us.


…Imagine if you heard an ominous, rising suspense soundtrack accompanying the build-up to lots of things you normally do in real life, like lifting the toilet lid or entering a dark room(!) That’s why George Lucas said, “The sound and music are 50% of the entertainment in a movie.” That’s unless many others and I have misattributed this quote to him because lots of quotes are apparently misattributed to the wrong persons! (Fluffystealthkitten and I joked around with quotes in Post No.: 0030.) Even the words of comedian impressionists can sometimes become misattributed to the people they’re impersonating because they sound like they could’ve said them.


We feel a variety of emotions when listening to songs too. Sombre instrumental music can make us feel the exact same sadness we feel as when reading some tragic news, for instance – the exact same electrochemical pathways and reward system are used, which also suggests that if something disrupts our ability to emotionally feel anything when reading about the news then it’d also disrupt our ability to fully emotionally enjoy music too, or vice-versa.


Misattribution could be used to our advantage though, such as when reasoning that our symptoms of fearful nervousness are actually due to eager excitement! Indeed, people frequently feel these two emotions at the same time because the physiological symptoms are similar.


So the next time your palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy then try to believe that it’s really because you’re a coiled spring that’s ready, gonna fly like confetti (mom’s spaghetti).




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