Names, phone numbers, passwords: they’re all things we swear we’ll be able to remember later, but when it’s time to recall them, we often find ourselves at a loss. Why does our memory fail us? Perhaps because we don’t understand how it actually works. New research shows that while repetition is the best strategy, people misconceive which techniques help them to memorize best. If you want to memorize something, repetition is the key.
Researchers gave study participants a bunch of words of various font sizes to memorize. Though most of these participants expected that they would recall the larger words better, the font size of the word had no effect on whether they remembered it during the test. The researchers repeated the study with a twist: while the words were of varying font sizes again, this time some of the words were shown to them four times. Again, the size of the words did not improve the participants’ memories, but they did learn words that they were exposed to better than the rest. The surprising part is that even after the test was complete, participants still thought they had learned the bigger words better than the words they saw multiple times.
While repeatedly reviewing something is a helpful hint to remember (if you can!), the researchers are most interested in the fact that the participants were unaware of which words they had actually memorized. This discrepancy likely means that students don’t study optimally and that eyewitness testimony is faulty. Until the human brain recognizes that it’s not actually memorizing what it thinks it is, it won’t be taking advantage of its full capabilities.