Tell me what you saw: The usefulness of verbal descriptions for others

Deborah H. Tan, Yuhong V. Jiang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Describing what one saw to another person is common in everyday experience, such as spatial navigation and crime investigations. Past studies have examined the effects of recounting on one’s own memory, neglecting an important function of memory recall in social communication. Here we report surprisingly low utility of one’s verbal descriptions for others, even when visual memory for the stimuli has high capacity. Participants described photographs of common objects they had seen to enable judges to identify the target object from a foil in the same basic-level category. When describing from perception, participants were able to provide useful descriptions, allowing judges to accurately identify the target objects 87% of the time. Judges’ accuracy decreased to just 57% when participants provided descriptions from memory acquired minutes ago, and to near chance (51.8%) when the verbal descriptions were based on memory acquired 24 hours ago. Comparison of participants’ own identification accuracy with judges’ accuracy suggests the presence of a common source of errors. This finding suggests that recall and recognition of visual objects share common memory sources. In addition, the low utility of one’s verbal descriptions constrains theories about the extension of one’s memory to the external world and has implications for eyewitness identification and laws governing it.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1227-1241
Number of pages15
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was part of the thesis that Deborah Tan submitted to the University of Minnesota in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the PhD. We thank Taylor Mikkalson, Allan Ojambo, Anthony South, Brittany Nelson, Yuyan Wang, Catherine Ogilvy, Erin Motley, Abigale Schmidt, and Claudia Hebert for assisting this research. Thanks also to Wilma Koutstaal, Sashank Varma, and Jonathan Gewirtz for helpful suggestions. Correspondence should be directed to Deborah Tan ( ) or Yuhong Jiang ( ). The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© Experimental Psychology Society 2020.


  • Visual memory
  • misinformation
  • verbal recall utility

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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