False Memories

False memory refers to the phenomenon of “remembering” something that never actually occurred. False memories can be small, such as mistaken details of an event, or they can consist of whole events that never actually happened. People experiencing a false memory generally believe the memory to be true, and often experience sensory detail and emotions, just like with real memories.

How Memory Works

Not All Memories Are Created Equal

Memory is not perfect. It does not record like a tape recorder or video camera. Instead, people tend to store bits of information from their experiences. These portions of memory are susceptible to distortion because memory is a reconstructive process. People tend to create memories from the various bits of stored information in their brain each time they remember something. In the process, details are sometimes changed or chunks of new material added.

Another reason for imperfect memory is that people tend to store the gist of events in their memories instead of the details. Not all events that people experience end up being stored as long-term memories. Many aspects of daily life go unnoticed or are quickly forgotten. For example, people fail miserably when asked to describe a U.S. penny because details, such as the way Abraham Lincoln is facing and the location of the date on the penny, simply aren’t important enough to be remembered.

Time is also important to people’s ability to recall information. Memories fade as time passes and become more prone to distortion. Also, the phenomenon of infantile amnesia makes it difficult for people to remember events from when they were very young.

Adults generally cannot remember events that occurred before age 2, even if the events were very important or traumatic.

Distortion in Memory

How does memory distortion occur? One important influence on memory is called a schema. Schemas are ways of organizing knowledge into predictable patterns or expectations. For example, people have schemas about how certain types of people are expected to behave (stereotypes) and about how events are supposed to happen (such as how to behave in a restaurant). By providing a “script” for how events are supposed to unfold, schemas act as energy savers that allow the mind to take shortcuts when processing information.

Usually these shortcuts work well, but sometimes they mislead memory. For example, when people are presented with a list of words that include bed, rest, and dream, but not the word sleep, and they are asked to recall all the presented words, people often falsely report the word sleep as being part of the list. This occurs because the list of words forms a script that is highly consistent with sleep. Because people’s memories are influenced by schemas, they sometimes “remember” things that are consistent with the script for an event, even though those events did not occur.

False memories also occur when people make mistakes about the source of certain information. For instance, someone could mistakenly recall an event happening to him or her when in reality the person merely dreamed or imagined it. Source monitoring errors occur when information is recalled correctly, but the source is not.

Psychologists previously believed that certain highly emotional memories of great personal importance—flashbulb memories—were impervious to distortion or forgetting. However, even these memories are prone to distortion. In one psychological investigation, people were asked the day after the Challenger explosion in 1986 to write an account of how they had first learned about the event. Three years later, these same people were asked to describe again how they had learned about the tragedy. A surprising amount of memory distortion was present in these recollections, even for those people who reported intense emotional reactions to the event. In fact, 25% of the participants had completely false memories of learning about the explosion. No one recalled the incident without some distortion of facts, and only 7% recalled the episode with close to perfect accuracy. When shown their earlier written accounts, those individuals with false memories expressed surprise at the discrepancies and remained unable to remember the true details of the event.

How to Create False Memories

False memories for events can occur naturally, as in the Challenger study, or they can be created through the actions of another person. One way that false memories can be created is through a phenomenon called the misinformation effect. This occurs when a person is given misleading information about an event which they subsequently incorporate into memory. In one experiment, participants watched a slide show of a car accident involving either a stop sign or a yield sign. They were then asked questions containing information about the sign that was either consistent or inconsistent with what they had actually seen (for example, “Did another car pass the red Datsun when it was parked at the stop sign?”). When shown two slides of the accident and asked to choose which they had seen, 75% of those who had been asked questions containing consistent information about the sign chose the correct slide. After misleading questions, they were correct only 41% of the time. Since they could have guessed correctly 50% of the time, this indicates the strong influence misinformation can have on memory.

Suggestive and leading questions can also distort memory reports. A question like “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” can lead accident witnesses to recall a higher speed than the same question asked with hit substituted for smashed into. Multiple leading questions can be particularly dangerous.

Although these methods are used by researchers to deliberately create memory distortion in participants, similar influences exist in the real world. For example, one witness may inadvertently give another witness incorrect information about a crime. The second witness may then come to mistakenly remember this information as being true. Also, research and recent cases of wrongful conviction have shown that suspects can be led to falsely confess to crimes they did not commit when subjected to certain interrogation practices. Police routinely provide misinformation to suspects during interrogation, which in some rare cases may cause the suspect to create false memories of committing a crime.

False Memories in Clinical Settings

Therapeutic Techniques

Some practices in clinical settings may enhance the likelihood of developing false memories. Attempts to recall “repressed” memories can be particularly dangerous. Repressed memories refer to memories that a person has suppressed out of conscious awareness, but that are thought to exist still whole and unchanged deep in the mind. There is little empirical support for the notion of repressed memories. Instead, research demonstrates that techniques used to aid recall of memory can create false memories. Techniques that encourage the client to imagine how events might have occurred, or rely on dream interpretation, are particularly prone to source-monitoring errors. Hypnosis and the use of “truth serum” drugs, such as sodium amytal, also place clients in suggestive states in which they are susceptible to memory distortion.

Legal Implications

False memories can have harmful consequences for patients, family members, and clinicians. Delayed discovery laws in some states allow a person with “recovered” memories of abuse to bring charges against his or her alleged abuser years after the normal statute of limitations has ended. If these memories are false, these legal proceedings can result in lawsuits or criminal convictions against an innocent person. Clients who recover memories in therapy and later reject those memories as false sometimes sue the therapist for malpractice. In the case of Burgus v. Braun (1997), a woman and her two children developed memories of belonging to a satanic cult, where among other things they were forced to eat thousands of babies. No evidence ever arose to support these outlandish claims. Eventually, the family sued, and was awarded a $10 million settlement.

Avoiding False Memories

Serious false memories of the kind described above are rare, and reputable clinicians take steps to reduce their occurrence. They avoid suggestive questions and therapeutic techniques, in favor of open-ended and balanced discussions and activities. Warning people of the possibility of false memories and asking them to focus on the source of information has been shown to reduce the rate of memory distortion. One way to minimize the likelihood of false memories is to be aware that they exist, and to understand what factors aid memory accuracy and what may make memory susceptible to distortion.


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