You are on page 1of 2


Key study: Bartlett (1932) War of the ghosts

One of the leading researchers in memory before Bartlett was the German psychologist
Ebbinghaus (1885) who tried to study pure memory and forgetting rates by learning nonsense
syllables and then reproduce them. Bartlett (1932) developed a different approach to the study
of memory when he asked people to reproduce an unfamiliar story they had read. Bartlett found
that people changed the story to fit into their existing knowledge. He argued that memory is an
active process rather than a passive tape-recording of experience as suggested by Ebbinghaus.

The aim of his study was to investigate how memory of a story is affected by previous
knowledge. He wanted to see if cultural background and unfamiliarity with a text would lead to
distortion of memory when the story was recalled. Bartletts hypothesis was that memory is
reconstructive and that people store and retrieve information according to expectations formed
by cultural schemas.
Bartlett performed a study where he used serial reproduction, which is a technique where
participants hear a story or see a drawing and are told to reproduce it after a short time and then
to do so again repeatedly over a period of days, weeks, months or years. Bartlett told
participants a Native American legend called The War of the Ghosts. The participants in the
study were British; for them the story was filled with unknown names and concepts, and the
manner in which the story was developed was also foreign to them. The story was therefore
ideal to study how memory was reconstructed based on schema processing.

Bartlett found that participants changed the story as they tried to remember it - a process called
distortion. Bartlett found that there were three patterns of distortion that took place.
Assimilation: The story became more consistent with the participants own cultural
expectations - that is, details were unconsciously changed to fit the norms of British culture.
Leveling: The story also became shorter with each retelling as participants omitted information
which was seen as not important. Sharpening: Participants also tended to change the order of
the story in order to make sense of it using terms more familiar to the culture of the
participants. They also added detail and/or emotions. The participants overall remembered the
main themes in the story but changed the unfamiliar elements to match their own cultural
expectations so that the story remained a coherent whole although changed.

John Crane & Jette Hannibal, InThinking

Remembering is not a passive but rather an active process, where information is retrieved and
changed to fit into existing schemas. This is done in order to create meaning in the incoming
information. According to Bartlett, humans constantly search for meaning. Based on his
research Bartlett formulated the theory of reconstructive memory. This means that memories
are not copies of experiences but rather reconstructions. This does not mean that memory is
unreliable but rather that memory can be altered by existing schemas.
The study was performed in a laboratory and can be criticized for its lack of ecological validity
although it used naturalistic material rather than nonsense material as was used in
Ebbinghauss study. The methodology used in the study was not rigorously controlled.
Participants did not receive standardized instructions, so some of the distortions could be due to
participants guessing or other demand characteristics. Bartletts study was important at the
time in that it pointed towards the possibility of studying cognitive processes like memory
scientifically and the research resulted in support for schema theory and the theory of
reconstructive memory, which have been useful theories in understanding human memory and
social cognition. Bartlett is now recognized as one of the first cognitive psychologists.
Bartlett, F. (1932). Remembering: A study in Experimental and Social Psychology. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
For further study The Bartlett archive at Cambridge A chapter on remembering

John Crane & Jette Hannibal, InThinking