Social stereotypes can cause people to misremember or distort information based on whether it conforms to their expectations. But this stereotype-induced memory distortion can also be reversed, according to new research published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

“Memory is a fascinating topic,” said study author Hartmut Blank, a reader in experimental and social psychology at the University of Portsmouth.

“It is also fascinating to see how memory can be manipulated, for instance, through misinformation or social stereotypes. Many studies over the last 40 years have shown this. But I always thought that this cannot be the ultimate answer – if memory was that unreliable and easily swayed, why would we have it in the first place?

“Maybe there is a difference between misremembering something in a certain situation (which is essentially what most studies have shown) and permanent distortion of the memory (about which we know much less, because it is harder to study). Therefore, if you change the situation in which the remembering takes place, maybe you can also remove a temporary distortion?” Blank said.

In the study, the researchers had 64 participants view the dating website profiles of two fake individuals. The participants then worked on problem-solving tasks and a sudoku puzzle for about 20 minutes. After this, the participants completed a memory test about the two profiles they had viewed.

Some of the memory tests, however, listed occupations for the two individuals — a builder and a Church of England priest. The researchers found that the participants’ recall of information was “strongly biased in the direction of the stereotypic occupational labels provided for them.”

About one week later, the participants completed the memory test again. This time, some participants were informed that the occupational information listed on the first memory test was incorrect.

The stereotypical bias in memory recall continued for participants who remained in the dark. But the stereotype-induced memory distortion was reversed for participants who were informed that the occupational information was incorrect.

Participants who viewed the occupational information on the first test, but were then told the information was incorrect on the second test, had similar memory recall to participants who never viewed the individuals’ occupations in the first place.

“Misremembering something doesn’t necessarily mean that the memory is lost or permanently distorted,” Blank told PsyPost.

“In our study, once people were made aware of a factor that may have distorted their previous remembering (i.e. the social stereotype), they were able to ignore this factor and remember things in an unbiased way again. Memory may be easily swayed, but it can be ‘unswayed’ as well under suitable circumstances.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“A single study never addresses all the issues. Firstly, our research imagined a situation where you meet a person, then later learn about their profession (i.e. the social stereotype kicks in afterwards),” Blank explained.

“This is not unrealistic. In many real-life situations, however, people will already have stereotypical expectations when they meet other people. We don’t know if it would be possible to reverse the stereotype effect on memory under these circumstances.”

“Also, we could undermine the stereotype influence because we told our participants that the stereotype does not actually apply (i.e. these persons were not actually a builder and a vicar). We don’t know how this would pan out in situations where the social label cannot be credibly denied (e.g. when the person is indeed a Muslim, a doctor or a footballer – but maybe untypical ones that are not covered well by the stereotype),” Blank said.

“Would it be possible, in this case, to ignore the stereotype when remembering these people? Hopefully, we will learn more about this in future research.”

“The message of our study is an optimistic one – misremembering something doesn’t mean you’ll always misremember it,” Blank added. “Generally, memory research should take a longitudinal approach more often and look at how remembering changes back and forth over time.”

The study, “Enlightenment beats prejudice: The reversibility of stereotype-induced memory distortion“, was authored by Hartmut Blank, Lauren Rutter, and Rebecca Armstrong.