When you look at the people around you, there is a tendency to assume that they will act like you do. That makes sense. One of the easiest ways to try to understand the behavior of other people is to think about what you would do in the same situation. And there is a tendency to do this most when you think that the person you are judging is like you in some way.
There are many aspects of memory, and they can all influence our judgments of others. For example, not only are we able to recall information about ourselves, but we also get a feeling for how easy it was to recall that information. That feeling can also influence our later judgments.
This issue was explored in a paper in the April 2014 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Karl-Andrew Woltin, Olivier Cornielle, and Vincent Yzerbyt.
Their studies took advantage of an interesting way of decoupling what people remember from the experience of how easy it was to remember information that has been used in many previous studies. In one study, they were interested in judgments of assertiveness. They began by asking people to remember situations in which they themselves had been assertive in the past.
Some people were asked to recall only 4 situations. This group was able to remember these situations easily, and so they had the experience that it was easy for them to think about being assertive. A second group was asked to remember 10 situations. This group had trouble remembering 10 things and often recalled about 6 events. The interesting thing here is that this group recalled more events than the one asked to remember only 4 events. But, it was hard to remember the events, so people were left with the impression that it was hard for them to recall situations in which they were assertive.
After recalling assertive behaviors, participants saw a picture of someone of the same sex and were told that person went to the same university. They were asked to make a number of judgments about their traits. Some of those judgments focused on assertiveness, while others focused on other characteristics.
In this study (and the others reported in this paper), the ease of recalling events did not affect judgments of unrelated traits. However, when people found it easy to recall events in which they were assertive, they judged the other person as more assertive overall than when they found it hard to recall events in which they were assertive.
A second study demonstrated a similar effect using creativity rather than assertiveness. Once again, participants who found it easy to recall events in which they were creative judged the new person to be more creative than those who found it hard to recall events in which they had been creative.
This study also had a second group of participants who were told that the design of the questionnaire influenced their belief about how easy it was to recall events about their life. This group had a reason to feel like it was either easy or hard to think about instances in which they had been creative. For this group, their judgments of the other person were not influenced by how difficult it was to recall situations in which they were creative.
Another study in this series found that this effect occurred only when the person they were judging was similar to themselves in some way. So, when the new person was of the same sex and attended the same university, then their judgments about the other person were affected by whether it was easy to recall events from their own life. But, when the new person was of the opposite gender and went to a different university, then ease of remembering had no influence on judgments about the other person.
What does all of this mean?
Often, when we think about memory, we focus primarily on the content of what we remember. However, there is also a lot of information that comes in the form of feelings about our memory. One dimension of those feelings is the ease with which things come to mind. Even though that ease can have many sources, we tend to use that ease as a signal of how commonly a particular event occurs in the world. That use of ease is related to the availability heuristic first described by Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman.
Even though experimental psychologists can do clever things to trick you into using these feelings in the wrong way, they are generally a very good indicator of how commonly you have encountered something in the world.
In the case of judging what other people will do, it is also useful to knowledge about yourself to make judgments about others. Human behavior is complex, and it can be hard to reason about all of the factors that affect what other people will do. Using your feelings about what you would do in that same situation is a great first guess about what others will do.