Memory for everyday things

Our memory for things that we see everyday appears to be remarkably poor, or so
Richardson believes.  His article describes our recall for the detailed engravings on coins.  Recall appears to be fragmentary at best and plain inaccurate at worst.  Specifically, the recall of details that are unimportant for the function of the coin, such as the milled edge and the orientation of the monarch’s head, is particularly affected.

This phenomenon raises several important issues within memory research. First, there is the need to distinguish between recognition and recall.  Recognition is simply being able to identify a visible coin as ‘a penny’ while recall involves generating a description of a penny in the absence of the real thing - that is, entirely from memory.  Nearly all of us can do the first of these tasks.   Accuracy on the second one is, however, much more variable.

The second issue that Richardson raises is the influence of expectation on our memory.  If we expect an event to have happened a certain way then, in the absence of conflicting memories, we are likely to remember the event that way.  In other words, if we can’t quite remember the full details of an event then we tend to ‘fill in’ the gaps from what we expect, or from a template or ‘schema’ that we hold in our heads.  This is known as the Schema model of memory (Bower, 1967).        The use of a schema to fill in gaps in our memory can be very useful.  It can enable us to report many details correctly purely on the basis of what we expect to have happened and without having encoded those details in the first place.  Richardson’s article examines how far the Schema model of memory can account for errors in memory, specifically the errors that people produce when describing coins.  Quite rightly, he examines alternative accounts for the errors that people make - a left profile bias, a right-handedness bias, pure guessing - but he fails to examine the possibility of a schema-driven error in another domain.  This is what French and Richards do in their article.

Given all the evidence, what do YOU think is going on?  Why do people typically picture the queen’s head the wrong way round on coins?  Why do people represent the Roman numeral for ‘four’ incorrectly on clock faces?  And here’s the tricky one - What other schema-driven errors might you expect to occur?


Richardson, J. (1993).  The curious case of coins: Remembering the appearance of familiar objects.  The Psychologist, 6(8), 360-366.

French, C.C., & Richards, A. (1993).  Clock This!  An everyday example of a schema-driven error in memory.  British Journal of Psychology, 84, 249-253.