It's Surprisingly Easy to Plant False Memories

"Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin." Novelist Barbara Kingsolver had her finger on the pulse of cognitive science when she penned this quote. Though you may think your memories are etched in stone, research says they're anything but. Memory can be manipulated incredibly easily, and by some surprising things.

With Imagination You'll Get There

The 1990s were a scary time for psychology. Many therapists were touting the idea that traumatic experiences could produce repressed memories, ones that could only resurface through therapy. But as patients began coming to terms with repressed memories of abuse and calling out their suspected abusers, many of whom were parents and loved ones, some began realizing that the experiences in the memories were impossible—and they sued their therapists for malpractice. At the same time, psychology researchers like Stanford professor Elizabeth Loftus began speaking out against the idea of repressed memories, pointing out that there was no scientific evidence for their existence and that, in fact, the therapists were planting false memories in their patients.

Loftus herself led studies that showed how easily a therapist could implant a false memory in a patient. She and her team created booklets that contained two stories from each study participants' childhood as recounted by a relative, plus one false story about the participant having gotten lost in a shopping mall at the age of five. First, the participants were asked to write down how much they remembered about each event; if they didn't remember it at all, they could indicate that too. Then they attended two follow-up interviews where they were asked to recount the events again. Nearly a third of participants claimed to remember the fake event directly after reading it in the booklet, and a quarter continued to remember it in the follow-up interviews.

Other researchers had similar results: researchers at Western Washington University led 20 percent of students to remember a birthday party that never happened and 18 percent to remember spilling punch on the bride's family at a wedding—but only in a second interview, after not recalling the false memory in the first interview. Perhaps more alarming are the studies into what happens when you ask someone to imagine an event that never happened, which is a common practice in clinical psychology. One study that asked volunteers to imagine a childhood event that never happened found that a quarter of the volunteers believed the event really did happen when asked about it two weeks later.

Real-World Implications

According to Loftus, false memories are most easily formed when three factors are present: there's pressure to recall the memory, there's encouragement to imagine what might have happened, and there's opposition to questioning the truth of the memories. All three of these factors come into play in a variety of high-stakes situations: criminal interrogations and psychotherapy, to name two. Likewise, the way that gentle suggestions about events that didn't happen can warp our memory of the events should alarm any consumer of news media. It's one reason so-called "fake news" is so insidious, since it may be creating actual memories that are tough to take back. So how do you protect yourself and your precious memories? Question everything, and be aware that your own mind is more easily manipulated than you expect.

The Nature of Memory

Written by Ashley Hamer May 12, 2017

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