8 How the Work of Memory is Biased: A Look at Sexism from Cognitive Psychology

Hannah Rasmussen and Mia Tenditnyy

Sexism is a problem that has plagued many cultures for centuries. Though lots of progress has been made, there is still lots of room for improvement in our day and age.

Women’s rights issues were not addressed in the United States until very recently, and still are being addressed today. Today, we still deal with the remnants of a blatantly sexist society which not so long ago ascribed to rigid, unfair gender roles. Many forms of sexism have become more subtle and harder to pinpoint in recent years, but the problem still persists in our society. Understanding memory and how it works can help us battle sexist ideas and become anti-sexist. In this paper, we will address schematization, working memory, and more to better understand how sexism originates and what we can do to stop it.

Memory is an adaptive trait, crucial to our survival; it allows us to survive and thrive in our own ecological niche (Kleinknecht, 2020). Imagine how we would have fared as a species if we weren’t able to remember something as simple as which berries were safe to eat and which animals would attack. How would we have survived as nomads if we couldn’t remember how to navigate our surroundings or get to know new areas? At the base level, we store memories to help our future selves, enabling us to adapt to complex and unpredictable environments (Kleinknecht, 2020). As Tulving put it, the process of memory allows us to engage in mental time travel, meaning that “episodic memory allows us to relive the past and use this information to imagine the future” (Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson, 2020, p. 15).

As this goal-oriented cognitive process is essential, there are many brain structures dedicated to its functionality. The ability to attend to and later recall information is so ingrained in our nature that memory happens incidentally, reflecting how we constantly pattern-match and make sense of the world around us (Kleinknecht, 2020). We strive for the security of understanding our surroundings so much that we have adapted to experience and sense-make simultaneously. We take in our sensations, perceptions, emotions, and iconic and echoic details and process them quickly, taking in the stimuli all at once and understanding them all together almost instantaneously. Often, it takes little to no effort to remember our past experiences.

While the mechanisms of the basic function of memory are fascinating and far more complex than most other animals, there is a lot more to consider beyond just the biological ability to remember. The topic of memory becomes even more interesting when discussing its role in learning in the context of cultural beliefs. Our memory creates the foundation for our beliefs—it is the memory of our past experiences, interactions, and thoughts which shapes our views. Without memories of such things, we would have no way to pull from the past knowledge and experience which affect our current understanding. There would be no basis for cultural expectations, such as beliefs about societal roles and religious practices.

Memory can be both a friend and a foe—although it is built to serve us efficiently, we can also learn maladaptive behaviors and encode ideas which are harmful to others. Because of our brain’s tendency to pattern-match so efficiently, we tend to sort our observations by stereotyping, labeling and categorizing both objects and people alike. Historically, people have made harmful judgments based on these stereotypes and have drawn damaging opinions from them, leading to widespread systematic oppression. In this paper, we will explore how functions of memory are involved in learning gender role stereotypes and the adopting of sexist beliefs.

How Memory Works (and Doesn’t Work), and How It Causes the Creation of Schemas

In order to understand how culture affects the function of memory, we must first understand the universal basics of our memory system. Concerning the basics, our minds are more alike than they are different (Kleinknecht, 2020). We have the same starter-set: the central nervous system, white matter and grey matter, the same neural structures, and the same capacity for neural representations to be shaped by experience. Because we all share this starter-set, our capacity for learning—and, therefore, memory-making—is universal.

We often find ourselves frustrated and angry with our memory, but fail to realise how amazing our memory truly is. This frustration is partially due to the popularity of the “mind is like a computer” analogy that gave rise to the field of Cognitive psychology. The model describes the processes of the brain similar to that of a computer, with one or more “storage” systems (Baddley et al., 2020). This memory system needs the capacity to encode, store and retrieve information (Baddley et al., 2020). Though it is true that our brains process somewhat similarly to computers, it turns out that our brains are far more complex. The memory system of our brains, unlike computers, actually have several interrelated memory systems (Baddley et al., 2020). These systems do not “store” memories like a computer code, but rather, are composed of neural networks which are mental representations of memories (Kleinknecht, 2020).

To leave us with the notion that our brains are as linear as computers has created unrealistic cultural expectations about recall. Though our memory system has its disadvantages, we need to give it more credit and realize that our minds were not created with the intention to retain months of lecture material with perfect recall. We must instead recognize that these are cultural expectations of memory.

The way that our academic system is set up does not reflect how the brain wants to remember, as our neural networks are not capable of representing memories with 100% accuracy (Kleinknecht, 2020). Instead, our brain wants to make generalizations that help us understand the world around us, in the process of schematization. Bartlett introduced the idea of schemas as “a structure that people use to organize current knowledge and provide a framework for future understanding” (van Kesteren et al., 2020). They are how our brains place order and organization to knowledge, so that we better understand information and can recall it easily later. Put simply, schemas are internal representations of categories of knowledge we create in our minds (Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson, 2020).

These schemas are built through the integration of information from the world around you. When you receive information and it is encoded into your memory, your mind tries to make connections to information you already know. In other words, schemas “allow us to process information in a streamlined way” (Kleinknecht, 2020). Neurologically, the way our brain comes to form these schemas is described below.

Learning and memory-making are made possible by Hebb’s rule, which states that “neurons that fire together, wire together” (Kleinknecht, 2020). This rule is a catchy phrase which describes how when multiple neurons become active in a chain reaction, they form what we call cell assemblies. As we learn and experience new things, neurons respond in the brain and activate together, and cell assemblies are formed. Later, when we recall the experience and retrieve the memory, these same cell assemblies become active again. Thus, a memory is successfully recalled simply by the reactivation of cell assemblies.

Cell assemblies are like the building blocks of neural networks. When cell assemblies become interconnected, they make up neural networks which represent known information (Kleinknecht, 2020). Known information, or knowledge, is our memory of what information we have learned. Neural networks can be imagined as conceptual webs of knowledge—they are physical representations of the knowledge we hold mentally. Reactivation of neural networks allows us to remember important information we need in order to function in society, like concepts, scripts (regular action sequences dictating how one should behave), and schemas.

How Cultural Schemas Affect Our Beliefs

Although we are all born with the same starter-set described above, we all think and behave differently due to a combination of our personalities and the cultures which we are shaped by. Wang & Ross (2007) define culture as both “a system (values, schemas, scripts, models, metaphors, and artifacts) and a process (rituals, daily routines, and practices) of symbolic mediation” (p. 646). Further, Wang & Ross (2007) explain that culture regulates intrapersonal and interpersonal psychological functioning by operating on social institutions and our actions, thoughts, emotions, and moral values (p. 646). On a cognitive level, culture establishes the baseline patterns of neural network activation, and shapes our schemas which we use to understand everyday life (Kleinknecht, 2020).

Our mind’s desire to generalize and connect new information to existing schemas is seen in the process of integration. Van Kesteren et al. (2016) describe that “associations representing detailed episodic experience-specific features might weaken or become distorted whilst those reflecting overlapping features may be strengthened.” Essentially, building associations between the overlapping pieces of the old and the new will aid the mind in the generalization of information across events. Additionally, it facilitates the “construction of integrated knowledge structures” (van Kesteren et al., 2016). In simpler terms, it creates stronger associations between pieces of knowledge, thereby creating stronger schemas.

In addition to Hebb’s rule that neurons wire together, the stronger the synapses, the more likely these materials will be retrieved (Kleinknecht, 2020). Overlapping information allows for those neurons to be fired again, therefore strengthening a more generalized version of the memory which becomes consistent with schema, as we see in van Kestern’s findings. This is how integration of new knowledge into an established schema can cause one to forget unique aspects of material, resulting in a generalized memory.

On a similar note, van Kesteren & Meeter (2020) also explain that by forming schemas, “new information that fits prior knowledge can allegedly be encoded more efficiently than when information is novel” (p. 1). For studying and schoolwork, this way the brain works with schemas is so helpful in building a deeper understanding of information, and is highly important to our academic success.

However, this generalization of information and forcing things into old schemas can have negative effects in other areas. From schemas, our minds produce prototypes to help us further generalize and simplify information. Prototypes are the most common or exemplary item or piece of information from the schema, and are representative of the mental category. From this process of generalizing information, prototypes emerge even more strongly as individual differences and details are glossed over in our memories. Stronger prototypes means that previously established cultural beliefs are reinforced, as we tend to perceive newly learned information “fitting in” with the beliefs we already have. This can be a negative or harmful phenomenon, because prototypes lead to stereotypes—and when we apply stereotypes to people, they can easily become hurtful.

Take this clear, stark contrast of cultures for example:  The patriarchal United States in the 1950s, and the indigenous Zapotec peoples of Juchitán in Oaxaca, México, where their matriarchal society has persisted in the midst of surrounding machismo for generations. In the U.S., it was commonly known in the 1950s that a woman’s role was to cook, clean, entertain, and care for the children while her husband went to work. Her “place” in society was well understood to be in the house, specifically in the kitchen and in the bedroom, the rooms where she was perceived as the most useful and valuable. She was to dress modestly, maintain a slim figure, be quiet and well-mannered, and be submissive to her husband. The husband was considered the provider of the family and handled the finances, and for many years, this view did not change much even as women began working more and contributing to the family’s income. While much of these ideas still persist and are still expected today in various ways, 70 years later, they are often less obvious and the expectations have become less rigid when compared to the 50s. It is no wonder that sexist stereotypes still remain today when this was the reality for women in the U.S. such a short time ago.

Contrasting this with the role of women in Juchitán is an astounding difference. Zapotec women run the economy and the household, and their responsibilities in their society are highly valued (Darling, 1995). They are under no pressure or obligation to marry, and in fact, Zapotec women prefer to be alone in making or raising their family if they cannot find a compatible man who respects her authority and does his share. In addition, women are not blamed or shamed for separating from their husband if he is an unreasonable one. It is expected that husbands should let their wives handle all the finances, and he should always go to her about making decisions and dealing with household problems. It is common belief in Juchitán that allowing a man to run the household ends in disaster, and women are looked down upon for allowing him the power to do so. Because the important domestic decisions and the local vending are women’s work, being outgoing and forward are considered feminine traits, and the men are more reserved. Although the Zapotec culture includes rigid gender roles, and has been criticized as being “reverse machismo,” they defend their culture from this notion. Zapotec men do not feel oppressed, and everyone recognizes that the difference in gender roles is not about dominance, but having a division of labor wherein roles are complementary to one another (Darling, 1995). The woman of the house may handle the finances, but she consults the whole family before making a major purchase. Zapotec women may run the local economy, but decision-making in this area is very democratic and they rely on men’s craftsmanship to help run the family businesses. Overall, Zapotec people say they feel like their community is more egalitarian and tolerant than most, and other societies could learn a lot from their way of life (Darling, 1995).

These contrasting examples from different cultures make the point that prototypes of schemas are derived from our own personal experiences. A child growing up in 1950s America would have a very different view of women than one growing up in Zapotec society in Juchitán. Our schemas are fully influenced by where we live, the culture we live in, and our own past personal interactions.

As a person continues to grow and is surrounded by sexist ideals, these ideals are reinforced and the schemas become stronger. If someone is raised learning toxic gender roles and stereotypes, whether they be taught in implicit or explicit ways, they are exposed to this ideology during their formative years and will come to believe that women are inferior to men. When someone contradicts their belief or offers evidence that invalidates their belief, the person will most likely experience cognitive dissonance. This cognitive dissonance arises because the semantic memory that has been created through their experiences has been challenged. Our brain likes to connect new information to old knowledge, but in the case of learning conflicting information, it cannot. When our beliefs are challenged, we become uncomfortable. We strive for consistency and coherence in our self identities, and information that conflicts with our personal beliefs or values disrupts this innate desire.

Although our beliefs and memories create a sturdy framework that we build upon as we go through life, we still have the capacity for change. The human mind is incredibly flexible (Baddley et al., 2020). In order to begin changing a perspective first you need self awareness. It is important to note that change does not happen instantly. These frameworks and ideals are integrated into our minds from a young age and will take time to break down. Although our society in the U.S. today may be very different from the 1950s example discussed above, sexism has been perpetuated generationally and is unfortunately far from gone.  Recognition of this is the first step.

Though they may seem disconnected, memory and sexism are intertwined. Sexist beliefs are taught culturally from a young age and when left unchallenged, they will become internalized and encoded into our minds, as is the nature of our brains to do so. With a better understanding of memory and how it works, we are more equipped to become more anti-sexist. Most importantly, because of our knowledge of memory, we know that changing schemas is not an easy process. We perceive the world through our schemas, and it is not easy to change something you have believed your entire life. Though it is a hard process, it is not impossible. We all have the capacity for change.

Unpacking Sexism is a Real Piece of Work:

How Working Memory is Involved in Developing Sexist Beliefs

Schemas are responsible for much of our prejudiced and discriminatory beliefs, but how do we get these harmful ideas in our heads? Schemas are created by the processes involved in working memory and episodic memory. Through this process, sexist ideas seep in and become integrated into our belief systems through what is happening in our working memory space. This also leads to the creation of episodic memories, which often reinforce a sexist belief or mindset. Even though feminism has made so much progress for women’s social and political rights, sexism remains an issue to this day. Much of sexism is subtle and so ingrained in our culture that we have a hard time spotting it when it happens. Because of this it is difficult uncovering our own misogynistic beliefs. Understanding how these beliefs are formed and how they persist on a cognitive level can help us identify sexism, and can help us dismantle it.

The Mechanics of Working Memory

To understand the role of long-term memory in sexism, we first need to understand our working memory system. Previously, psychologists emphasized the idea of storage transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory, and thought of these as separate “store” spaces. This theory was Atkinson and Schiffrin’s modal model of memory, which operates on the assumption that our minds work similarly to computers. It was thought that we, like computers, have the ability to store input, and retrieve it when we receive the proper cue. In other words, when prompted, we bring back information from the long-term store to the present mind, moving it to the short-term store.

Since then, we understand that our brains work with information in a much more complex way; while our brains do compute, they are not as precise and direct as computers. The working memory model, proposed by Baddeley, emphasizes the mind’s ability and tendency to manipulate information rather than store it with precision  (Kleinknecht, 2020). This model replaces the concept of a short-term “store” in order to show how our short-term memory is more of a working space for our minds. Essentially, working memory consists of what is happening in your brain in the current moment, and your ability to leverage that workspace  (Kleinknecht, 2020).

The working memory model contains four components: the central executive, the visuo-spatial sketchpad, the phonological loop, and the episodic buffer (Baddley et al., 2020, Ch 4). These components each have their own function in the working memory space, as they are representations of what your brain registers in the present moment. The visuo-spatial sketchpad is how we describe the mental representation created in response to visual and spatial information, and the temporary maintenance of said information (Baddley et al., 2020, Ch 4). The phonological loop is for spoken and written material, and involves the processing of speech perception and speech production (Baddley et al., 2020, Ch 4).  However, in our working memory, the central executive and the episodic buffer are the spaces which are most obviously responsible for perpetuating sexism.

The central executive is a way for us to think of what is responsible for our deliberate processes, such as attention, judgments, decision making, memory span or capacity, self regulation, etc (Kleinknecht, 2020). However, although the name suggests otherwise, it is important to note that we do not really have a “central executive” in our heads who directs our control processes (Kleinknecht, 2020). There is not some physical structure in the brain which is responsible for attention and decision making, but instead we must recognize that these abilities exist and happen in the working memory space.

The episodic buffer is a placeholder in the model where we acknowledge the interactive exchange between long-term memory and the working memory space  (Kleinknecht, 2020). The episodic buffer is the space where what you see causes you to think about what you know, and your brain connects the pieces together to make sense of your current experience  (Kleinknecht, 2020). Therefore, the episodic buffer gives us a sense of conscious awareness, and allows us to recall relevant past experiences which will help us in some way with the current experience we are having. As Doolittle described in his TED Talk, working memory connects us to the present while allowing us to recall the past, and this happens in the episodic buffer space (Doolittle, 2013; TED, 2012).

The Role of Working Memory in Sexism

When thinking about how our control processes play a role in sexism, it becomes necessary to consider that our behaviors are affected by the framing of a situation. Conway introduced the idea that frames are established by situations and motivations in response to cues (Conway, 2009). The frame is our momentary reason for remembering, and therefore will guide our attention and perceptions. Therefore, framing affects what information gets ignored and slips through the cracks, and what actually gets encoded to memory. The frame has a massive effect on where our attention goes, and thus affects which details we can later remember about an experience. We can set frames deliberately, such as when we study something and intentionally put our attention to the task. Other times, the frame elicits an automatic response which flows as a natural reaction to the environment, such as when we quickly answer a question with ease.

Frames often are in alignment with schemas we already hold.  For example, say a person has just gotten a new office job and is a little nervous to start. For clarity, we can call the frame “I am at work in an office job.” This person is likely to already have a schema for what it is like to work in an office, especially if they already have experience working in that professional setting. The frame is affected by past knowledge about office jobs, and therefore dictates how the new employee should behave in this setting. Based on past experience, the employee knows that the frame of situation means they should act in a manner which is considered professional, keep their attention focused on their work, and adopt a tone and style of conversation that is appropriate for the workplace. Being new to this particular office, they might also recall the company culture at their old job and believe that things between the two will be very similar. In a meeting at this new office, they might be surprised to see that there are more women at this company than at their old one. Because this is different from what they were expecting, this catches their attention, causing their frame to shift. Their focus has been distracted from the frame which dictates what they should be doing at work, and they are now allocating attentional energy to judging how the female employees are conveying and presenting their ideas at the meeting.

What the central executive attends to and judges in the moment matters—it contributes to what information is remembered and how we think about that information later. In the office example, this looks like paying extra attention to a female coworker’s work/speech style/appearance/etc. and making judgments on her competency or intelligence, whereas her same work would not have been as scrutinized if it had come from a man. Later, the new employee will recall their observations of the female employee in a negative way and incorporate them into a schema for women in the workplace. The key here is that our mindset in the moment, which is determined by functions of the central executive, will affect how we recall our memory of the event later.

This leads into the episodic buffer, where we recall past knowledge and use it in the moment. In the office example, connecting to their past knowledge about the office workplace is what caused their central executive functions to identify that this experience with listening to women at work as an anomaly. They made judgments about the female professionals and the quality of their work, which will become incorporated into a schema which they can later recall again in similar situations. It becomes a cycle of reinforcing sexist beliefs, fueled by paying purposeful attention to and making judgments of things women do, and continuously adding these biased observations to sexist schemas.

Episodic Memory and Internalized Sexism

Episodic memory is the capacity to recall specific information about an experience and creates a feeling of mental time travel, as described by Tulving (Baddley et al., 2020, Ch 6). Episodic memories are mostly in the form of visual images and are representative of moments or summaries of experience (Conway, 2009). There are 9 major properties of episodic memories according to Conway (2009):

  1. Contain summary records of sensory-perceptual-conceptual-affective processing.
  2. Retain patterns of activation/inhibition over long periods.
  3. Often represented in the form of (visual) images.
  4. They always have a perspective (field or observer).
  5. Represent short time slices of experience.
  6. They are represented on a temporal dimension roughly in order of occurrence.
  7. They are subject to rapid forgetting.
  8. They make autobiographical remembering specific.
  9. They are recollectively experienced when accessed.

In the context of sexism, points 8 and 9 are most important to consider. Autobiographical memories, or memories we carry about ourselves and our experiences, are heavily tied to our episodic memory. From our experiences, we abstract commonalities about ourselves and our relationships, giving us a feeling of identity  (Kleinknecht, 2020).  Women who experience sexism, whether implicit or explicit, incorporate these experiences into their autobiographical memories. We can easily see, then, how repeated acts of sexism can become tied to our identities. Our self concepts, or self schemas, are heavily influenced by our autobiographical memories—so naturally, it follows that personal experiences with discrimination on the basis of sex can affect self-esteem and feelings of self worth.

As described in Conway’s property 9, when we access these memories, we get a feeling of reliving from them. In the context of experiencing sexism, this comes with the potential for reliving negative emotions. This reliving of an experience of sexism can elicit a wide range of negative emotions, whether it is about a time where your sex or gender simply inconvenienced you, caused you to feel a sense of shame, made you feel unsafe, made you emotionally distraught, or reminds you of a traumatic time. Whichever level of emotion the memory elicits, you are disadvantaged and potentially damaged for having had those experiences solely on the basis of your sex or gender identity. Oftentimes, we cannot control when these memories come up for us, just as we cannot control how they happened to us.

What we can try to do is recognize that these painful things are a part of our past experience, but we do not have to let them define us or affect our sense of self worth. This can be hard to do and takes a lot of effort, because our tendency is to intertwine our autobiographical memories with our sense of self. But with intentional effort and mindfulness, we can pick and choose which experiences and values we wish to define ourselves with, learn to be more kind to ourselves, and realize that we have the power to control our own self narrative by rejecting the internalized negative thoughts.

Training your Mind in Becoming Less Biased

It is important to acknowledge that it is easy to be biased not only because we live in a culture which promotes certain ideologies and narratives over others, but also because our systems of memory work in this way for the purpose of efficiency. We have attentional biases and flawed control processes because they make the encoding process more efficient and help us construct more simple mental representations, or schemas. Working memory, episodic memory, and schemas function in certain ways which allow for organization and a smooth flow of information, but in doing so, cause us to make generalizations, assumptions, and conclusions based on stereotypes. However, just because this is the default way in which our brain structures are built to operate, does not mean there is no way to become more mindful of potentially harmful ways of thinking. We can control the functions of the central executive, and we can use its properties of attentional awareness, judgmental thinking, self regulation, and decision making to do better in the world.

Starting with attentional awareness, we need to approach these topics with an open mind and catch our thought processes within the moment. Dismantling sexist thoughts and beliefs is not a simple process, and will take lots of conscious effort and energy. When you have a sexist thought or an opinion, take time to stop and reflect on it. Ask yourself things like, “Where do these thoughts come from? Why did I have this thought? Who is affected by what I am thinking, and how would they feel if they knew I thought this?”

Having mindfulness about these thoughts is about being curious about them and giving you an opportunity for reflection, not about being judgmental or critical about yourself for having them. We must not get discouraged when we are faced with cognitive dissonance and mental barriers. Our brains struggle when our consolidated ideas get challenged, and we cannot incorporate new information into old schemas to reinforce old beliefs—it goes against our brain’s efficiency pattern. When we are presented with material that conflicts with ideas we have had our whole life, it can even take a toll on mental health  (Kleinknecht, 2020). We must be kind to ourselves in this process. The point is to become aware of our biased beliefs, and reflect on what parts of the thinking pattern you would like to work on. Ruminating on them judgmentally will only make you feel worse about having identified your own biases, and make you aware of a feeling of inability to get past the mental struggle. Instead, non-judgmental observance of the thoughts can help you change the thinking pattern for the future.

Another way to use your attentional control and judgements in a positive way is to listen to people’s stories, and not react in a judgmental way. Be open to conversations about sexism—even though they are often tough and uncomfortable, progress cannot be made without them. If you do not have any personal experience to input into the conversation, be considerate and recognize your role as the listener. Be mindful that it is the other person’s turn to speak, and the most respectful thing you can do is lend listening ears and show the person that you are there to receive the information non-judgmentally.

You can choose to battle sexism by making intentional decisions to become more educated and supportive of women-led works. Repeatedly exposing your mind to feminist literature, videos, documentaries, and media can make a difference in the real world. We Should all be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a very powerful TED Talk which addresses the negative connotation some have about the word “feminist,” and outlines why it is still so important to intentionally support women’s rights. Even incorporating creative media such as books, movies, and music made by women into your life is extremely important. Doing this can offer you a perspective that you may not have experienced before or have not previously considered. You consume some form of media everyday, so listening to music made by women or reading a book with a female lead is a small but simple way to expose yourself to female perspectives and input. Every small act of consuming media created by women is important to elevating women’s voices. If we keep consuming media made by women, we will allow for women to be represented in complex, powerful, and realistic ways. If we demand representation throughout various spaces—political, academic, creative, professional, etc.— our voices will be heard.

Addressing Sexism in the Long-Term Starts in the Short-Term:

Using Self-Reflection to Catch Our Sexist Cognitions

Memory can be both a friend and a foe—although it is built to serve us efficiently, we can also learn maladaptive behaviors and encode ideas which are harmful to us and others. Because of our brain’s tendency to pattern-match so efficiently, we tend to sort our observations by stereotyping, labeling and categorizing both objects and people alike. Historically, people have made harmful judgments based on these stereotypes and have drawn damaging opinions from them, leading to widespread systematic oppression. In this paper, we explore how functions of memory are involved in learning gender role stereotypes and the adopting of sexist beliefs, in the context of both internalized sexism and projecting sexism onto others. We discuss the seven sins of memory and memory accuracy; spreading activation and schemas; autobiographical memory and how it contributes to self-concepts; bias and barriers to change; and finally, how to capitalize on your brain’s talents in order to be a part of a positive change.

Why Aren’t Our Memories Accurate?

Memories are not exact representations of things like videos and photos are (Schacter, 1999). Memories are reconstructions of experience, and even though they might be partially accurate, they are not literal representations of events (Schacter, 1999). Contrary to the popular rhetoric we get from computer science, our brains are not so much like computers. We do not have perfect recall, and we are prone to many sources of error. Daniel Schater suggested that there are seven “sins” to memory, each of which describes a different kind of faultiness our memories can become subject to. These seven “sins” are transience, absentmindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence (Schacter, 1999). Transience, absentmindedness and blocking all have in common the timing of forgetting (Schacter, 1999). Transience is forgetting over time (Schacter, 1999). Absentmindedness is a forgetting that occurs because insufficient attention is devoted to a stimulus at the time of encoding or retrieval (Schacter, 1999). Blocking is when a memory becomes temporarily unavailable (Schacter, 1999).

Misattribution, suggestibility and bias are a result of distortion or inaccuracy, and these are the most important sins regarding the adoption of sexist beliefs (Schacter, 1999). Misattribution is when a memory is present but is misattributed to an incorrect time, place, or person (Schacter, 1999). Suggestibility is the tendency to incorporate information provided by others into our memories (Schacter, 1999). Bias is the distorting influences of present knowledge, beliefs and feelings on recollection of previous experiences (Schacter, 1999). Each of these sins, especially bias, are often the sources of inaccurate or subjective sexist information which gets incorporated into our schemas about women.

The seventh sin, persistence, is also important to the explanation of the holding of sexist beliefs. Persistence is described as information that we cannot forget, but that we would like to be able to forget (Schacter, 1999). Unfortunately, as many women know from personal experience, sexist ideals still persist in the minds of many. Historically, sexist beliefs have caused people to display targeted, discriminatory behaviors and language towards women. Too often, being the victim of this discrimination can be a traumatic experience which persists vividly in memory.

While it is obvious that these memory “sins” can have detrimental effects when it comes to social issues like sexism, our brains are subject to these kinds of mistakes in memory for a reason. Even though Schater called these seven components of memory “sins,” he argues that it is a mistake to see these sins as flaws in our memory system. Instead, he states that they should be viewed as the by-products of our adaptive features of memory (Schacter, 1999). Our society constantly places pressure on us to have a perfect memory, and we find ourselves frustrated with this when we do not meet this unrealistic expectation. It is so important to recognize that our society was not created with our memory’s “do’s” and “don’ts”  in mind.

We are not made for memory accuracy, but instead, we are made for flexibility. If accuracy was our memory’s sole purpose, we would function more like computers. Instead, we should recognize that our minds work in a way which allows for creativity and control to change our own ways of thinking. If our minds were set up to be completely objective in spitting out the appropriate output based on the input, like computers do, we would not be able to have such creativity, autonomy, or individuality. This includes the ability to look at information in new ways, and change our patterns of thinking—two things incredibly important when confronting sexist beliefs.

Spreading Activation Springs Schemas Into Action

The Spreading Activation Model is one of the most accurate ways to describe how our brains actually recall and organize information. The model describes how a cue activates a certain “node,” which represents a piece of semantic knowledge. Following activation of one “node,” other “nodes” representing closely-related concepts or pieces of information also become rapidly activated. This produces what is called the typicality effect, as typical items are regarded as more closely semantically related than atypical items (Baddeley et al., 2020).

Spreading activation and the typicality effect offer an explanation as to how we create schemas, which represent collections of closely associated knowledge. Schemas are internal representations of categories of knowledge we create in our minds (Baddeley et al., 2020). They are how our brains place a sense of order and organization to our knowledge base, both episodically and semantically, so that we better understand information. In other words, schemas “allow us to process information in a streamlined way” (Kleinknecht, 2020). Spreading activation, then, is the mechanism by which the information within schemas become associated together in our minds.

From the typicality effect we see in the Spreading Activation Model, prototypes are created based on the most typical items which represent that category of knowledge. When applying this to people, rather than objects, prototypes can often be harmful stereotypes. For example, a man could grow up being taught that a woman’s place is at home and in the kitchen, and therefore he would think that this role is “typical” of all women. When he grows up and starts interacting with the world outside of his own bubble, and he realizes that this is not true of all women, there will be a conflict with the schema he has created for how women ought to be and do.

We also create schemas for ourselves. When thinking about how sexism affects women and their self concept from a cognitive lens, spreading activation is an important mechanism. Discrimination on the basis of sex is demeaning and can lead women to feel less valued by the people in their lives, in the workplace, or by society in general. Feeling less valued by others often affects our own sense of self worth. Spreading activation will cause similar feelings and memories to come to mind, because the theory states that closely related concepts will also become activated. Essentially, when you are in a negative headspace and you think one bad thing about yourself, you are likely to think of other bad things as well due to spreading activation. Cognitively, this is one of the mechanisms by which sexism becomes internalized. If we accept and ruminate on the assumptions others have made about us, we integrate it into part of our identities and incorporate it into our self concepts.

Autobiographical Remembering and Self Concept

Humans have been grappling with the concept of self for centuries. Every culture has their own interpretations of what a self concept is and how to fully grasp the idea of self. In the West, we are no stranger to the idea of self. In fact, Westen culture is built on the idea of having a unique and autonomous self. When compared to Eastern cultures, the West stands out like a sore thumb of individualism. The West has an obsession with identity and autonomy, and cross-cultural research on differences in autobiographical memory supports this (Conway & Loveday, 2015). During their formative years, children in the West are encouraged to pursue hobbies that help form a unique sense of identity and to find their personal passions, and parents are extremely supportive of their children’s development of individuality. A common conflict that young people face in the West is the desire to fit in socially and be accepted, but at the same time, to stand out just enough that they are admired as an individual.

Where does this obsession with having a unique identity come from? What is a self concept anyways? Our self concept comes from a cognitive system called autobiographical memory. Baddeley et al. (2020) define autobiographical memory as “the memories that we hold regarding ourselves and our interactions with the world around us” (p. 351). Neurologically, his system is mediated by neural networks in the neocortex and limbic system (Conway & Loveday, 2015). Autobiographical memories are memories that we have accumulated across our lifespan that consist of specific events and self-related knowledge (Baddeley et al., 2020, Ch 11). Autobiographical memory comprises personal factual knowledge, cultural knowledge, and also episodic memories of personal and meaningful experiences (Conway & Loveday, 2015).

Apart from being a basic and necessary part of survival, autobiographical memories serve a very important psychological purpose. These memories help us form bonds and lasting relationships, give us a sense of identity, and shape current decisions and future planning (Kleinknecht, 2020). Memories play a major role in making us who we are, and without them, we can feel lost or as if part of us is missing (Kleinknecht, 2020). Humans crave cohesion, and the storytelling aspect of memories give us this sense of cohesion and completeness which we naturally strive for (Kleinknecht, 2020).

Another part of autobiographical remembering is the concept of autonoetic consciousness, which is the mechanism that allows us to reflect on ourselves through the awareness of our thoughts and actions across space and time (Kleinknecht, 2020). Autonoetic consciousness is what allows for self concept, as it allows us to reflect on certain contents of episodic memories (Baddeley et al., 2020, Ch 11). This ability to reflect on ourselves is crucial, because it helps us decide the kind of person we want to be. Baddeley et al. (2020) states that our ability to remember autobiographically helps us to “define who we were at different times in the past, who we are currently, and who we hope to be in the future” (p. 351).

This explanation of autobiographical memory makes it clear how important it is that we abstract commonalities about ourselves and our relationships from our experiences, and this gives us a feeling of identity (Kleinknecht, 2020). Women who experience sexism, whether implicit or explicit, collect these experiences in their autobiographical memories. We can easily see, then, how repeated acts of sexism can become tied to our identities. Our self concepts, or self schemas, are heavily influenced by our autobiographical memories—so naturally, it follows that personal experiences with discrimination on the basis of sex can affect self-esteem and feelings of self worth. The stacking up of these hurtful experiences in our autobiographical memories leads to the incorporation of them into our self concepts, and this is another way we internalize sexism.

When we access these memories, we get a feeling of reliving from them (Conway, 2009). In the context of experiencing sexism, this comes with the potential for reliving negative emotions. Often, we cannot control when these memories come up for us, just as we cannot control how they happened to us. What we can try to do is recognize that these painful memories are a part of our past experience, but we do not have to let them define us or affect our sense of self worth. This can be hard to do and takes a lot of effort, because our tendency is to intertwine our autobiographical memories with our sense of self.

But with intentional effort and mindfulness, we can pick and choose which experiences and values we wish to define ourselves with. As we grow from the experiences we have gone through, we can realize that we have the power to control our own self narrative by rejecting the internalized negative thoughts. Our sense of self may continue to fluctuate as we go through life reacting to the different challenges we face, but we can always choose to use our ability to self reflect in a positive way. We can choose which thoughts and feelings about ourselves to accept, and which to reject. We do not have to allow our self-view to change in response to others’ projections of us.

Barriers to Change and Self-Reflection

The difficulty we face with change may be not only a result of cognitive function, but of cultural influences as well. Due to our Western values of individualism and autonomy, we tend to have self-serving narratives about ourselves according to temporal self appraisal theory (Ross & Wang, 2010). This theory states that when people reflect on the past, they do it in a way that makes them feel good about themselves in the present. A study on Westen university students and remembering found that the Western students remembered themselves as engaging in more fair behaviors and fewer unfair behaviors in comparison to others (Ross & Wang, 2010).

When reflecting on ourselves in the past, it can be easy to say that we have not partaken in sexist mindsets or behaviors. Due to the nature of memory in combination with the temporal self-appraisal theory, it is not a surprise that many people are in denial of ascribing to sexist beliefs. This behavior arises so people can distance themselves from unpleasant and unflattering outcomes and continue to focus on the gratifying ones (Ross & Wang, 2010). This innate behavior of our Westen culture does not aid in our journey for self improvement. We may recognize that we have done something wrong, but it takes a lot of effort to change that behavior or to stop it all together, because we do not like to focus on our weaknesses or areas of improvement. Those who were raised in a Western culture may find it uncomfortable to reflect and to recognize that we do not have to be shy about our past mistakes. That is why it is fundamental to start at reflection, and recognize that we do not have to be an idealized version of ourselves like we may paint ourselves to be. Mistakes are human—but we must be able to call out those mistakes.

It is important to consider how the stereotypes we give people are absorbed by children as they grow up. These stereotypes which we learn to assign to people will greatly impact how we perceive others. In a study by Leichtman & Ceci called “The effects of stereotypes and suggestions in preschooler’s Reports,” we see the strong effects stereotypes can have when they are used to prime children’s perceptions. In the study, children were presented with a man who played the role by the named Sam Stone and then were asked follow up questions after his visitation. There were four groups of children: the control group that received no stereotype and no suggestions, the stereotype group that received a stereotype and no suggestions, a group that received a suggestion but didn’t receive a stereotype, and the stereotype plus suggestion group that received both a stereotype and suggestion. The students who were given the stereotype reported instances of the behaviors much higher than those who didn’t receive the stereotype. Those who received the stereotype and the suggestion reported an even higher rate of the suggested stereotype. In this experiment, “Sam Stone” did not display any of the stereotypical behaviors, yet children who received stereotypes or suggestions about him reported that he did. The findings of this study emphasise the importance of recognizing the stereotypes we’ve adopted and the stereotypes we teach children.

In regards to sexism, we see just how easily the stereotypes given to the children in the Sam Stone study can be replaced with stereotypical sexist ideas. If, as a child, you were taught that women are weak, fragile and not as smart as men, you might see those stereotypes in a woman—even if they are not really there. This becomes a dangerous and slippery slope when the stereotypes embedded in us from a young age change how we see the world into adulthood.

Stereotypes organize and structure experience by directing individuals to look for expectancies in the environment and using this information to interpret such expectancies (Leichtman & Ceci, 1995). Stereotypes in and of themselves are not inherently a bad thing. Some stereotypes help us accurately navigate the world and can help us with quick understanding in the moment—but as with everything, there is not always a clear distinction between good and bad. Stereotypes help us organize memory by adding thematically congruent information that was not perceived or distorting what is perceived (Leichtman & Ceci, 1995). What is clear, however, is that the potential distortion effect that stereotypes have is problematic. When adopted to an anti-sexist mindset, we must be aware of the sexist stereotypes we likely hold.

Self-Reflection as the Beginnings of Change

Changing schematic knowledge requires a frame of an open mindset, as well as attentional effort and intentions to listen and learn. This is necessary because sometimes, even a large amount of information stacking up against the established schema is not enough to make a person change their mind. Too often, people simply choose to ignore information which goes against their pre-existing beliefs, and they do not absorb the conflicting information—or if they do, they do not process it as conflicting with or disproving their previously-held belief. Eventually, an open mind and an intention to pay attention is always what leads to the expanding of schemas.

Reflect on instances where you were being sexist. Was the person really displaying the stereotypical behavior you thought they were? Or did your stereotypes distort your perception of the situation? It may be hard to know for sure, because more than likely, your response to the situation was quite automatic due to the schemas your brain draws understanding from. As discussed earlier, there is no need to be in denial of having made this mistake.

Next time you find yourself making judgments about a female-identifying person, start paying attention to your own internal dialogue. Simply noticing the way your automatic thought processes occur is being mindful, and it is important to put attention to things in order to know how to change them. After paying attention to your internal reactions, you can ask yourself reflective questions such as “Am I judging this person before seeing them as they are before me?” or “Do I have an open frame of mind to hear this person out without clouding their words with my own preconceived notions about them?”

Finally, if you are a female-identified person who has struggled with internalized sexism, the same recommendations of mindfulness and an open frame of mind are important to you as well. You can pay attention to the negative thoughts you are having about yourself, and choose not to recognize them as innately true. You can have a kind and curious disposition as to why those negative thoughts have come up, and where they have come from. You can use the cognitive ability to pay attention to and contemplate these thoughts to refuse to incorporate them into your self-concept. Think about whether these thoughts are really true of yourself, or whether you, in actuality, deserve more kindness and self-respect than you have been given and shown.

While the study of cognitive psychology tells us that changing our beliefs goes against the innate nature of the way our brains process information, that fortunately does not mean that changing is impossible. In fact, cognitive science tells us that our minds are quite flexible. If we so wish, we can use our control processes to look internally and address our own patterns of thinking. We know both from cognitive psychology and from personal experience that the process of challenging deeply and subtly ingrained sexism will take time, intention, effort, and mindfulness—but it is very possible, and very important, to try. We simply cannot allow yet another generation to be raised under a society which favors one sex over the other and looks down upon femininity. We owe our young girls and women more than that.

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