False Memories

I was asked today what I would be writing about and I told them that I was trying to come up with something about false memories. My questioner expressed surprise at the topic because surely you can’t just make up a false memory, and anyone who did would be ‘very naive’. Unfortunately, this is not the case and it is actually quite easy to get someone to create a false memory.

The classic example is from a study in 2002 in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review (open access) where the authors showed people a series of photographs from their childhood. The photos had been obtained from relatives of the subjects independently; the catch was that one of the photos had been doctored. They used Photoshop to take a detail from a real picture and insert it into a fake picture of a hot air balloon ride – it had already been established with the relatives that the subjects had never been on a hot air balloon as a child.

The subjects were shown the fake photos interspersed with the real ones and asked, over a series of three interviews over about two weeks, to recall all that they could about the event. An impressive 50% of participants recalled details of the event not present in the picture which they had fabricated themselves. Some would describe the location or the weather or other people who were there; some would describe emotions or smells and other sensations from the experience, all of them a complete work of fiction. Similar responses have been shown with narratives instead of pictures and there now exists a solid body of work that shows how easy it is to implant a false memory.

The reason that this matters is that this phenomenon can have real world applications with the most serious of consequences. A 2014 study in Psychological Science showed that it is possible to convince a majority of people that they committed a crime. The researchers, having contacted the families of the subjects to get real details about their teenage years, asked the subject to remember two separate events from their childhood; one event was real and one was concocted by the researchers but this false memory was peppered with real details from their childhood. Of the false memories there were two types; half were emotionally significant and half were some kind of criminal act (theft, assault or assault with a weapon).

Over three interviews the participants were asked to recall the memories. The interviewers used highly leading and suggestive questioning techniques and could supplement the answers with their own pre-gotten information. After the third interview 76% of participants believed that the emotionally significant false event had taken place and an amazing 70% believed they had committed a crime that had led to involvement with the police. They were able to describe the event in detail supplementing it with multi-sensory but fictional details. I shouldn’t need to highlight the potential significance of these findings in relation to how the police conduct their interviews with their suspects or with coaching witnesses.

Another article from Psychological Science shows that people are far more susceptible to modifying the details of a memory when they’re sleep deprived – another technique that could easily be misused by those with the will to do so.

There is a key message to take home from this. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the people who made these false memories were particularly impressionable or naive as my inquisitor first suggested. These are typical people and it could just as easily be you. Your memories are not a faithful record of what happened, they are a construction that fit your internal narrative; they can be modified, deleted and created quite easily without your permission and without you knowing about it. One of the most valuable things you can do is to learn to think sceptically and a massive part of that is learning the ways in which your own mind can deceive you. We need to be mindful and humble when it comes to what we think we know. You think you know what you saw? You don’t. The great and much missed neurologist Oliver Sacks put it far better than I ever could:

“Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”


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