The study is only meant to be a proof-of-concept experiment. But according to Julia Shaw, a psychologist at the University College London who specializes in memory, the findings make perfect sense given how memory works.
“Unlike when we interact with technology, when we speak to humans we constantly manage the impression we are making—controlling how we move, speak, what we say,” Shaw, who was not involved in the new study, told Gizmodo via email. “This has two effects. First, it takes a lot of effort, effort that could otherwise be used for remembering what happened. Second, the nature of a social interaction can affect how and what we remember. A particularly attractive or friendly interviewer may encourage you to mention more details than you are sure you remember, while a judgmental or distracted interviewer may make you keep your responses too short.”
In surveys taken afterward, the volunteers who were interviewed by the avatar did report having an easier time talking and, importantly, that they were more comfortable admitting when they didn’t remember something.
They were also less confident that their memories were correct than the face-to-face group, which at first glance might seem counterproductive. But research has consistently shown that not only is confidence not a reliable predictor of memory accuracy, but that inaccurate eyewitnesses tend to be more confident than those who get things right, especially if their recollections are influenced by other factors, such as suggestive police questioning or even hypnosis.
With their encouraging results in hand, the researchers plan to conduct more trials of this interviewing technique.