Ulric Neisser - Cognitive Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Ulric Neisser
Cognitive Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1928, Kiel, Germany


DIED 2012, Ithaca, New York


Educated at Harvard University and Swarthmore College



Ulric (Dick) Neisser is considered by many to be the founder of cognitive psychology. His two most famous works—Cognitive Psychology, from 1967, and Cognition and Reality, from 1976—set the stage for a new focus on the measurement and science of thoughts and memories and were considered an important nail in the coffin of behaviorism as the sole explanation of why we act in the ways we do.

Though philosophers and early psychologists had been speculating on the nature of thought for many centuries, cognitive psychology brought thought into the realm of the laboratory. That mental processes, just like behavior, could be measured with specificity was an important idea that began to take hold as the study of cognitive psychology took off. Neisser ushered in an era of new developments in scientific ways to observe, assess, and quantify cognitive processes, and the field of psychology, as a result, was able to bid farewell to the limitations of theoretical analysis and introspection as the only ways to understand what, exactly, goes on in our thought processes.

Neisser developed a specialty in the domain of memory. He theorized that a memory is not an exact, static snapshot of a moment in time but rather an after-the-fact mental reconstruction of an event. That memory itself may be subject to all kinds of psychological idiosyncrasies is an extremely important concept, as it opens the door to studying just how inaccurate our recall can be and to discovering what we can try to do about it. It also fundamentally changes the way we think about memory—the circumstances of the recollection may be just as important as the circumstances in which the memory itself was formed. Our minds are not perfect recorders, and we likely remember our memories of an event more than we remember the event itself. Inaccuracies easily seep in. Neisser showed that the process of formulating a memory and the context of how we remember are just as psychologically salient as the original experience of the remembered event.

Neisser viewed memory and experience as parts of an interactive cycle. He said that our schemas, or schemata, which are the mental structures we use to understand and organize our environment, directly affect our behavior. And, in turn, the experiences that we have go on to further modify our schemas. These processes repeat themselves in an infinite loop.

Neisser’s most noteworthy work involved so-called flashbulb memories. That term refers to those iconic memories we have of the most significant and emotionally charged moments of our lives, and they are usually very potent. It was previously thought that the brain, during one of these emotional events, acted immediately to solidly imprint those important seconds and minutes into memory. But Neisser challenged this notion, hypothesizing that what makes us remember flashbulb memories more clearly is the telling and retelling of the story of our experience, and that flashbulb memories are not inherently different from or stronger than everyday memories. He supported this idea with solid data demonstrating that flashbulb memories, though very strong and detailed, are actually not particularly accurate.

Neisser coined the term repisodic memory, wordplay on episodic memory. Episodic memory is autobiographical in nature: Where did you spend your 21st birthday? Semantic memory has to do with those facts and knowledge that we learn but that don’t directly involve our own experience: Name five state capitals! But repisodic memory has to do with events that never really happened but that we seem to recall anyway. Such events, which we have somehow created in our minds, are typically very similar to events that have happened often to us, and so they don’t actually come out of nowhere. Are we making them up? No. But they conform enough to our schemas—the general ideas we have of things that have happened to us—that they seem to fit in, and so we fill in the gaps of our recollections and construct these quasi-fake memories. Sometimes, Neisser showed, we can also commit the error of taking a group of events and blending them into a single memory.

Finally, Neisser did particularly interesting work on selective attention and perception, showing that when we are not paying particular attention to something, not only will we likely not remember it, we also might not even notice major and unusual aspects of it in the first place. Therefore, contextual factors affect not only our memories but also our entire perception of the remembered moment in the first place.


Neisser’s research on memory directly inspired later memory researchers, such as Elizabeth Phelps, who further explored the interaction of emotion and memory, and later longitudinal studies on flashbulb memory, such as an ongoing one about 9/11, which Phelps and many others are involved in. Neisser’s having established the foundation of cognitive psychology as a field led to the additional multidisciplinary fields of behavioral neuroscience (which combines biological findings with cognitive psychology) and cognitive science (which extends beyond psychology to encompass linguistics, philosophy, and computer science).


You likely have a collection of flashbulb memories stored within your brain from various times throughout your life. Some might be moments whose importance was significant to millions of others: the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan; the death of Michael Jackson; the terrible news of September 11, 2001. Others might be more personal: when you proposed to your spouse; when you found out you had made partner at your law firm; when you got the call that your father had suffered a heart attack. Whether the memory in question is strictly personal or societally shared, it is quite likely that you have told the story multiple times of where you were or what you were doing at that pivotal moment, and that you began to tell your story not long after the experience itself. Talking about shared experiences of the same life-defining moment can often bring people together.

But though you may very well feel that the event is burned into your memory, and that each retelling has merely reconveyed those exact, never-changing details to a different audience, have you ever stopped to think that each time you retell the story, you might drift farther and farther away from the truth? Perhaps, for certain audiences, you omit certain facts or even add key details. And the next time you tell it, the story shifts ever so slightly, not because you are lying but because you are reconstructing the narrative as you recall it from the previous time.

Perhaps you’ve even had the surreal experience of finding an old journal and getting to reread your original account of an event soon after it occurred. You may have been startled and even embarrassed to see just how differently you’ve been recalling events over the years, no matter how you actually perceived them at the time. Of course, there can be a fine line between honest errors in memory and tendentious misrecollections that come from the desire to tell a story in a grandiose or self-serving way. Recall the controversy surrounding Brian Williams of NBC. He often repeated claims of having ridden in a military helicopter in Iraq that was forced down after having been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. In January 2015, he told the story one time too many, as it was heard and challenged by people who had been involved in the actual incident, and who explained that the helicopter that was hit was the one that had been flying in front of the helicopter in which Williams was riding, and that his helicopter had not been directly involved. Though he was immediately suspended and eventually lost his role as a nightly news anchor, Williams has never clearly acknowledged that there was a deliberate attempt to tell the story differently from how he believed its events had really occurred. His apologies have been along the lines of “I told stories that were wrong” or “I got the story wrong.” And though additional discrepancies in some of his other reported stories have since come to light, it is hard to be certain that he actually lied. Looking back at his statements over years of retelling the helicopter incident, what you see is a gradual shift in how the story was told, with successive accounts placing him closer and closer to the heart of the action. Was this an egotistical attempt to stretch the truth? Was he riding the slippery slope of pushing the story to be more and more exciting, and continuing to get away with it? Or was it an inaccurate flashbulb memory that gradually drifted away from the real experience? Perhaps there was a little bit of both.

KEY EXPERIMENT Neisser’s best-known experiment, published in 1992, explored the accuracy of flashbulb memories via college students’ recollections of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. In 1986, the day after the tragedy, Neisser had 106 college undergraduates fill out a survey that asked the respondents where they were when they heard about the event, how they found out about it, whom they were with, what they were doing, and what time it was. Given that it was so soon after the occurrence, these accounts were taken to be a baseline, probably accurate recollections of the events as they happened. Just under three years later, the same students were given a fresh copy of the survey (44 were completed in total) and were also asked to rate how confident they were of their recollections. Only 7 percent of the students showed perfect recall; 68 percent produced combinations of accurate and inaccurate recollections; and 25 percent had recollections that were completely inaccurate. All in all, over 90 percent of the students’ memories contained at least one major inaccuracy. And, most damning, the students with the completely inaccurate memories had the same high level of confidence as the students with the completely accurate ones. When the respondents were shown the two surveys together and were faced with the discrepancies, not one of them remembered the event more clearly or reverted to his or her earlier responses. Though the respondents were often somewhat upset by the differences in the stories they had told at two different points in time, they still tended to cling to their false memories.