Sir Frederic Bartlett – The War of the Ghosts
Claudia Hammond looks at memory and the Chinese whispers experiment by the pioneering psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett.
When the British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett was working at Cambridge University during the First World War, memory had only just started to be considered a psychological rather than a philosophical subject. A German psychologist called Herman Ebbinghaus dominated the field. He had spent days at a time learning lists of nonsense words, testing himself to see precisely how many he could remember. But a game of Chinese Whispers gave Bartlett an idea which he developed into a radically different approach to the study of memory. He discovered that when he asked people to repeat an unfamiliar story they had read, they changed it to fit their existing knowledge, and it was this revised story which then became incorporated into their memory. Bartlett's findings led him to propose 'schema' - the cultural and historical contextualisation of memory, which has important implications for eyewitness testimony and false memory syndrome, and even for artificial intelligence! Claudia Hammond investigates the impact of Bartlett's findings.