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Sir Frederic Bartlett and the Method of Description

How to understand memories modification on experimental psychology.

Key points

  • Sir Frederic Bartlett was a experimental psychologist at Cambridge University.
  • Bartlett developed the remembering theory based on experimental evidences about the nature of memory.
  • He classified some memories' modification in importation or transferences based on method of description.

Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett (1886-1969) was a British psychologist known for his studies of memory and imagination. He was the first professor of experimental psychology at Cambridge University, where he worked until his retirement in 1951. Bartlett published around 200 titles.

One of his best-known works is Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (1932). He explored important characteristics of memory, moving away from previous studies that considered it a storage place and theorizing how it is constituted in the cultural environment. He conducted a series of experiments on perception, imagination, and memory, allowing him to create a theory that took each of these processes into account. He developed three methods: the description method, the repeated reproduction method, and the serial reproduction method. This post focuses on the first of these.

Method of Description

Bartlett presented five images of officers’ faces (marine, military, or officer; Figure 1). The experiment was carried out with 20 participants during the first days of the First World War when interest in military service was widespread. This influenced the attitude of the participants. Bartlett (1932) justified the use of these figures on the grounds that they were sufficiently similar to each other to make their grouping easy; at the same time, each face had well-defined individual features.

Source: Note. Bartlett; 1932. Page 47; Public Domain
Figure 1 - Cards Used in the Experiment
Source: Note. Bartlett; 1932. Page 47; Public Domain

The participants had to view each card twice for 10 seconds. After a 30-minute break, they were asked to describe in detail all the cards following the order in which they were presented and answer some questions about the characteristics of the figures. A week later, the participants were asked to describe the cards again and answer further questions. The procedure was repeated over longer intervals without the cards and without the participants knowing that a new description would be requested.

The Influence of Mental Images and Language

In analyzing the data on recall, Bartlett (1932) observed the process by which subjects retrieved the details of the figures and the order in which they did so. He identified several characteristics, including the influence of mental images, language (verbalization), affective/attitude aspects, and social and cultural contexts.

On the other hand, words and phrases can have a smaller range of description, but they can be superior tools if the issue has to do with recalling the order or sequence of objects. In addition, he noted how the context of the time (i.e., the beginning of World War I) influenced attitude and affectivity when participants remembered the details of the figures. In each of the experiments, they tended to conventionalize the features of the faces to a standard shape, in line with what was being widely publicized at the time of the war.

This idea is similar to the notion of suggestible memories introduced by Elizabeth Loftus (1996) in her discussion of the creation of false memories (you can read about false memories by clicking here). However, the big difference is that in the model proposed by Bartlett, this memory characteristic allows the construction of new meanings and the re-signification of past experiences. It is not just about distortions or false information created by the imagination but constructed meanings, as was later discussed by Vygotsky, Leontiev, and Luria.

Transferences and Importations: Modifications of Memory

When analyzing his data in the method of description, Bartlett (1932) pointed out certain characteristics of recall: the change in the order of presentation of cards; transfers of details from one card to another; and imports of external elements that were not part of any card.

Transfers concerned the details that participants transferred from one figure to another. Bartlett stated that six of the 20 participants transferred details from one image to another. Some transfers that took place were based on the numbering of the faces in Figure 1:

  • Four transfers from card II to card I
  • Two transfers from card I to card II
  • Three transfers from card III to card I
  • One transfer from card II to card III
  • One transfer from card IV to card III
  • One transfer from card I to card IV

Bartlett (1932) noted that the most frequently transferred element was the hat, possibly because all the characters wore one. Imports (i.e., elements inserted into the figures) were mental creations of the participants. Bartlett observed that 13 participants imported 19 external elements in the first description of the cards.

In the second description (a week later), imports rose to 24, although only 10 participants were analyzed. In the third description, there were 19 imports. The results demonstrated that the greater the time interval for recall, the greater the tendency to invent or import new materials from different contexts and insert them into objects (Bartlett, 1932).

Bartlett’s description method advanced understanding of the nature of memory - the influence of cultural elements in particular. He later proposed the concept of schema to explain how new elements were incorporated into information recall.


Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge University Press.

Loftus, E. F. (1996). Eyewitness testimony. Harvard University Press.

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