Present-day experiences may change our childhood memories

June 20, 2023 - Shelly DeJong

new study from Michigan State University sheds light on how memories of childhood caregivers continue to change among middle-aged and older adults.

The study, published in the journal Personal Relationships, assessed over 2,500 middle-aged and older adults on their memories of their childhood, specifically how their parents treated them while growing up. The study found that 35% to 46.2% of people’s impressions changed when they were asked the same questions four years later.

 Furthermore, some of these changes were linked to present-day experiences, with those who experienced divorce remembering their childhood as more negative, and those who lost a parent remembering their upbringing more positively.

Bill Chopik

“How we think about our past relationships serves as the basis for how we navigate new relationships,” said William Chopik, lead author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Psychology. “Our memories of these past events aren’t static — they change over time and they keep changing years and years after our memories are thought to solidify.”

The study’s findings have broad implications for how people navigate new relationships and trust in others, as memories of past relationships serve as the foundation for such judgments. The study also challenges previous psychological research that rests on people reporting on how good or bad their previous relationships were.

 “How we remember relationships is also important. This study shows that this really important aspect of how we make sense of our past might continue to change as we live life and reflect on ourselves and our relationships,” said Chopik. “The past doesn’t change, but our memories of it seem to.”