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What Is a False Memory?

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While we are all familiar with the fallibility of memory (who hasn't forgotten an important bit of information), many people do not realize just how common false memory really is. People are remarkably susceptible to suggestion, which can create memories of events and things that didn't really happen to us.

Most of the time these false memories are fairly inconsequential - a memory that you brought the keys in the house and hung them up in the kitchen, when in reality you left them out in the car, for example. In other instances, false memories can have serious implications. Researchers have found that false memories are the leading cause of false convictions, usually through the false identification of a suspect or false recollections during police interrogations.

Question: What exactly do we mean by a false memory?

Answer:

A false memory is a fabricated or distorted recollection of an event that did not actually happen. People often think of memory as something like a video recorder, accurately documenting and storing everything that happens with perfect accuracy and clarity. In reality, memory is very prone to fallacy. People can feel completely confident that their memory is accurate, but this confidence is no guarantee that a particular memory is correct.

Definitions of False Memory

  • "A false memory is a mental experience that is mistakenly taken to be a veridical representation of an event from one's personal past. Memories can be false in relatively minor ways (e.g., believing one last saw the keys in the kitchen when they were in the living room) and in major ways that have profound implications for oneself and others (e.g., mistakenly believing one is the originator of an idea or that one was sexually abused as a child)."
    (Johnson, M. K., 2001)

  • "It is essential, at this early stage, to distinguish false memory from the more familiar idea of memory fallibility. Memory, as everyone knows, is an imperfect archive of our experience... In its most general sense, false memory refers to circumstances in which we are possessed of positive, definite memories of events - although the degree of definiteness might vary - that did not actually happen to us."
    (Brainerd & Reyna, 2005)

What Causes False Memory?

Factors that can influence false memory include misinformation and misattribution of the original source of the information. Existing knowledge and other memories can also interfere with the formation of a new memory, causing the recollection of an event to be mistaken or entirely false.

Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has demonstrated through her research that it is possible to induce false memories through suggestion. She has also shown that these memories can become stronger and more vivid as time goes on. Over time, memories become distorted and begin to change. In some cases, the original memory may be changed in order to incorporate new information or experiences.

Who Is Affected by False Memories?

Loftus's groundbreaking research has shown just how easily and readily false memories can form. In one study, participants watched video of an automobile accident and were then asked some questions about what they saw in the film. Some participants were asked 'How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?' while others were asked the same question but the words 'smashed into' were replaced with 'hit.' When the participants were given a memory test pertaining to the accident a week later, those who had been asked the 'smashed into' question were more likely to have a false memory of seeing broken glass in the film.

Loftus also suggests that false memories form more readily when enough time has passed that the original memory has faded. In eyewitness testimony for example, the length of time between the incident and being interviewed about the event plays a role in how suggestible people are to false memory. If interviewed immediately after an event, when the details are still vivid, people are less likely to be influenced by misinformation. If, however, an interview is delayed for a period of time, people are more likely to be affected by potential false information.

The bottom line:

While it might be difficult for many people to believe, everyone has false memories. Our memories are generally not as reliable as we think and false memories can form quite easily, even among people who typically have very good memories.

 

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Reference:

Brainerd, C. J., & Reyna, V. F. (2005). The science of false memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Loftus, E. F., Miller, D. G., & Burns, H. J. (1978). Semantic integration of verbal information into a visual memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4, 19-31.

Loftus, E. F. (1997). Creating false memories. Scientific American, 277, 70-75.

Loftus, E. F. & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725.

Loftus, Elizabeth F. Memory: Surprising New Insights Into How We Remember and Why We Forget Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1980.

Loftus, E. (2001). Imagining the Past. Psychologist, 14 , 584-587.

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