Memory Distortion for Past Choices

What is remembered about a decision can be as important as the decision itself, especially in determining how much regret or satisfaction one experiences. Yet these memories are often not completely accurate. In fact, our research indicates that the process of making and remembering choices yields memories that tend to be distorted in predictable ways (e.g., Mather & Johnson, 2000; Mather, Knight, & McCaffrey, 2005; Mather, Shafir, & Johnson, 2000; Mather, Shafir, & Johnson, 2003).

Choice-Supportive Memories

One predictable way that memories of choice options are distorted is that positive aspects tend to be remembered as part of the chosen option, whether or not they originally were part of that option, and negative aspects tend to be remembered as part of rejected options (Mather et al., 2000, 2003). Older adults are more likely to show these choice-supportive asymmetries than younger adults (Mather & Johnson, 2000), an effect that may be due to their greater focus on regulating emotion. How does this type of memory distortion arise? Several aspects of our findings suggested that choice-supportive memory distortion occurred at the time of retrieval and was the result of the belief that, "I chose this option, therefore it must have been the better option." However, it is also possible that choice-supportive memories are due to only paying attention to certain pieces of information when choosing, or to post-choice cognitive dissonance. To test the role of beliefs at the time of retrieval about which option was chosen, we gave participants several hypothetical choices like this one between two used cars (Henkel & Mather, 2007):

OPTION 1: Red car

Hard to find service outlets
Has a dent from a previous accident
Seats are very comfortable
Good handling on turns
High mileage on odometer
Makes an unidentified rattling sound
Prestigious model
Air conditioning included
Doesn't do well in bad weather
Stereo included

OPTION 2: Black car

No warranty
Some rust on exterior
High resale value
Has airbags
Needs a few repairs
Not much trunk space
Powerful engine
Previous owner took good care of car
Not fuel efficient
Has a sun roof

After making several choices, participants left the lab and returned a week later. At that point, we reminded them which option they had chosen for each choice and gave them a list of the features of the two options (mixed with some new positive and negative features) and asked them to indicate whether each option was new, had been associated with the option they chose, or had been associated with the option they rejected.

Our "reminders" were correct for half of the choices. But for the other half of the choices, we misinformed participants about which option they had chosen. Participants favored whichever option we told them they had chosen in their memories. In addition, participants' ratings of qualitative features revealed a vividness-inflation effect in which features attributed in a fashion favoring believed choices were more vividly remembered than non choice-supportive features. These findings show that beliefs at the time of retrieval about which option was chosen shape both which features are attributed to the options and how vividly they are remembered.

Remembered Options are More Alignable

Imagine you are looking for an apartment to rent and have the following information about two apartments. Given this information, which apartment would you choose to rent?


No laundry facilities in the building
Near lots of great restaurants
Lots of closet space
Mildew and mold in bathroom
Heating system is not very effective
High ceilings
Beautiful hardwood floors
No views from any of the windows


Old shag carpeting
Heating system works well
Almost no closet space
Grocery store right around the corner
On a quiet street
Not much light at any time of day
Tiny kitchen
Bathroom is sparkling clean

If you try to decide which apartment you would select, you may find that you try to directly compare the features of the options (for example, noting that one apartment has hardwood floors whereas the other has shag carpets) rather than evaluating each option separately.

In many choices we make, however, not every feature has an analogous (or alignable) feature in all the available options. In a study in which we had participants make choices in which the options had some alignable and some nonalignable features (like the apartment choice above), we found that both younger and older adults fill in the comparison gaps when remembering, creating features in the other option to contrast with existing features (Mather et al., 2005).


Henkel, L. A. & Mather, M. (2007). Memory attributions for choices: How beliefs shape our memories. Journal of Memory and Language, 57, 163-176.

Mather, M., & Johnson, M. K. (2000). Choice-supportive source monitoring: Do our decisions seem better to us as we age? Psychology and Aging, 15, 596-606.

Mather, M., Knight, M., & McCaffrey, M. (2005). The allure of the alignable: Younger and older adults' false memories of choice features. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 134, 38-51.

Mather, M., Shafir, E., & Johnson, M. K. (2000). Misrememberance of options past: Source monitoring and choice. Psychological Science, 11, 132-138.

Mather, M., Shafir, E., & Johnson, M. K. (2003). Remembering chosen and assigned options. Memory & Cognition, 31, 422-434.

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