Battling Selective Memory in Addiction

Selective memoryThe trouble of selective memory can be aggravating for the family of an addict. Convincing someone of something they can’t remember feels like a frustrating cycle of confrontation and disbelief—especially when those actions seem wildly out of character. Without clear recollection of the ugly events, an addict will naturally struggle to believe or see the problem. Until the addict acknowledges the problem, that individual can’t take responsibility for their actions. Consider how selective memory can disguise the level of a substance abuse problem.

Biases in memory

In psychology research, studies have uncovered different phenomena known as memory biases. One of the more well-known biases is hindsight bias—the tendency to assume past events were more predictable than they actually were. Another memory bias is known as rosy retrospection. Rosy retrospection is exhibited when one sees memories through a distorted, “rose-tinted” lens, recalling past events as more pleasant or satisfying than how they felt in the moment. A rosy perspective can be positive from a sense of favorable recaps and evaluations of one’s experience, but it can also have negative consequences when one neglects to remember the conflicts or hazards an event actually involved.

Researchers have found that rosy retrospection can prevent people from changing their behaviors and actions. This helps explain why people tend to repeat past mistakes. As time passes, the negative outcomes of an event grow blurry, and the positive associations get brighter.

The effects of memory bias are evident in the patterns of addiction. We often see rosy retrospection plague people who are going through withdrawals. Their selective memory encourages them to reminisce on the fun or thrilling aspects of using a drug. By remembering events safer and happier than actuality, an addict too quickly forgets the trauma and devastation their last “high” ended up producing. That rosy perspective reinforces their drive to use again.

Loss of memory formation

When someone experiences an alcohol-induced blackout, the brain loses its ability to form long-term memories. The individual may be able to create short-term memories to hold a conversation, but any future memory of those conversations will be lost, making it especially challenging to explain to someone who they were or what they did during a blackout.

An addict often feels disassociated or unattached to reports of his or her behavior, feeling like the person in that situation was someone else. Perhaps the intention was only one drink or one round, but the pull of the substance escalated. By only storing memories before the blackout, the addict feels disconnected from the stories people relay after the fact. The brain just remembers the positive rewards that came from the drug.

Collision of broken memories

When we combine memory biases with the results of a blackout, the outcome is a confusing, agonizing circle of blame and denial. The key to reconciling these circumstances is to help an addict understand the consequences of their actions. Sometimes it’s a devastating event that becomes a wake-up call, serving as “proof” of the problem. While a dangerous situation is never desirable, identifying evidence from those wake-up calls can help to persuade someone of the damage their behavior is causing.

How do you communicate with someone who denies any substance abuse problem exists? Apply these tips on approaching someone in denial.