False Memories

We do not necessarily remember our experiences the way they really happened—and what is more, remembering an experience does not necessarily mean it actually happened at all. In little more than a decade, scientists have discovered that people can have detailed, emotion-filled, and utterly false memories.

False memories are memories that are partly or wholly inaccurate. They are the product of secondhand information rather than genuine experience. Although the term false memory can be used to describe a wide range of memory phenomena, in this entry it is used to describe full-blown distortions of our own biographies: wholly false memories of unreal experiences. However, readers should be aware that two large and parallel scientific literatures show that people can misremember aspects of witnessed events, misidentify perpetrators, and falsely recall verbal information.

The Repression Phenomenon

According to the Harvard scientist and clinician Richard McNally, for many decades mental health professionals in the United States generally believed that once victims of childhood sexual abuse reached adulthood, they often did not like to talk about their abuse; yet by the end of the 1980s, he notes, the reluctance to disclose became an inability to remember. Many therapists, convinced that their clients were repressing experiences of long-ago trauma, began using techniques designed to dig up these buried memories—techniques such as imagination, guided imagery, hypnosis, and dream interpretation.

Many of these therapeutic techniques appeared in a mass-market book called The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. First published in 1988, it was the biggest gear in what Carol Tavris has called the “abuse-survivor machine.” It still ranks among Amazon.com’s bestsellers, and even a cursory browse through Amazon’s customer reviews reveals that the book is surely among their most controversial. On the one hand, the book has given comfort to genuine victims; on the other, it encourages beliefs that can create a legion of pseudovictims.

For example, readers who wonder if they might be repressing memories of childhood abuse are told that the lack of such memories does not mean that they were not abused. In fact, memories are unnecessary: The belief that one was abused and the presence of certain symptoms in one’s life are enough to confirm that the abuse happened. Other therapists concurred. A few years later, in 1992, Renee Fredrickson suggested that the very absence of memories was proof enough; that is, those who remember very little of their childhood or a period of their childhood (e.g., between the ages of 10 and 14) have repressed memories.

Scientific Research on False Memories

Lost In the Mall

As the notion of repression became more popular, some psychological scientists began asking themselves if these “recovered memory therapy” (RMT) techniques might be dangerous. Would it be possible, they wondered, for people to “recover” memories for false childhood events?

The answer was yes. In a landmark study in 1995, Elizabeth Loftus and Jacquie Pickrell showed that they could implant a false childhood memory using a seemingly innocuous RMT technique: asking people to try to remember a childhood experience. They asked people in their study to read descriptions of four childhood events. Three descriptions were genuine— having been provided by a family member—and one description was false. The false event described the reader being lost in a shopping mall and being rescued by an elderly lady. For example, one person in the study read this description:

You, your mom, Tien, and Tuan all went to the Bremerton K-Mart. You must have been 5 years old at the time. Your mom gave each of you some money to get a blueberry Icee. You ran ahead to get into the line first, and somehow lost your way in the store. Tien found you crying to an elderly Chinese woman. You three then went together to get an Icee.

People were asked to write everything they could remember about all four events, and then they were interviewed twice over as much as 2 weeks. By the end of the study, approximately 25% of the people reported at least some information about the false shopping mall episode. Some of the memories were rich narratives, while others were less so—although perhaps even these may have developed if they had had more time to incubate.

The “Lost in the Mall” study was the first demonstration that everyday people could come to recall entirely false events, a finding that showcased the malleability of autobiographical memory and questioned the legitimacy of some of the recovered memories emerging in therapy. It also gave rise to a number of studies using the same basic paradigm. Since then, scientists have shown that people can recover memories of a wide range of false experiences, from being attacked by an animal to being saved by a lifeguard.

Photographs

Another RMT technique is photographic review, in which people look through photo albums as a way of triggering recall of their buried abuse memories. Scientists asked two questions about this technique: (1) Are photos powerful enough to elicit memories of false events? (2) Do photos add power to a false suggestion?

To answer the first question, Kimberley Wade and colleagues followed the “Lost in the Mall” procedure but swapped the written event descriptions for photographs. Again, one of the events was fake: taking a hot-air balloon ride. The people who took part in the study each saw a doctored photograph of themselves and at least one family member in the basket of a hot-air balloon. Each person was interviewed three times over approximately 2 weeks and asked to work at remembering the experience. Even in the absence of any narrative suggestion, by the end of the study, half the subjects came to remember something about the balloon ride. In short, photographs can lead people to remember experiences that never really happened.

Of course, as dubious an RMT technique as photographic review might be, it does not call for the use of doctored photos—instead, clients are encouraged to review family albums in concert with the suggestion that they might be repressing memories for childhood abuse. But suppose that suggestion is false. We have already seen that false suggestions can lead people to report false experiences. Would the combination of a false suggestion and a real childhood photo be especially dangerous? Stephen Lindsay and his colleagues addressed this question by asking one group of people to read descriptions about some grammar school experiences. One of the events was false and described getting in trouble for playing a prank on a schoolteacher. A second group also read descriptions—including the false story about the school prank—and received class photos corresponding to the age at which each event took place. As in previous studies, nearly half the “descriptions-only” people remembered something about the prank, but more than three quarters of the “descriptions-plus-photo” people remembered something. This study shows that the combination of familiar real photos and a false suggestion can be especially dangerous.

How Do False Memories Develop?

The scientific research now clearly shows that it is possible to change people’s autobiographies by implanting false memories. How do these memories develop? One model of false memory development was proposed by Giuliana Mazzoni and colleagues. Their model contains components that are crucial to the formation of false memories. We focus on two of those here: the plausibility of the false event and the belief that the event really happened.

Plausibility

There are numerous real-life cases where people have reported implausible—some would say impossible—memories, ranging from being abducted by space aliens to being forced to breed for a satanic cult. How does the plausibility of a false event affect the likelihood that someone might come to believe it really happened? To answer this question, Giuliana Mazzoni and colleagues ran a four-part experiment over the course of several months. In the first phase, they asked people to rate the plausibility of various experiences, including a critical event: witnessing an incident of demonic possession. People also reported how likely they thought it was that they had actually witnessed such an incident when they were very young. At the end of this phase, the subjects reported demonic possession as both implausible and unlikely to have featured in their childhoods. In the second phase, some of those people read stories about cases of demonic possession and learned that it was a real phenomenon. In the third phase, these same people took a test that ostensibly measured their fears, and their results were always interpreted to mean that they might have witnessed a case of demonic possession. Finally, they completed the same measures as in the first phase. The key question was how responses at the final phase compared with responses at the first phase. People who had read about demonic possession and received the fear interpretations rated witnessing it as more plausible than they had initially. Giuliana Mazzoni and colleagues also found that even small changes in plausibility were enough to cause significant changes in people’s belief that the experience had really happened. This study and, later, related research suggest that people can judge an event as implausible yet harbor the belief that it had really happened. The same is true of the relationship between plausibility and memory; for example, the world is riddled with adults who still remember hearing reindeer on the roof one Christmas Eve.

Increased Belief

The second component in the development of false memories is the belief that the experience really happened. On this front, scientists have discovered that a number of RMT techniques can increase belief.

One of the most common of these techniques is imagination. What is the consequence of imagining a false event? To answer this question, Maryanne Garry and colleagues first asked people to report their confidence that a series of childhood events had happened to them. Later, the same people were asked to imagine some of those events but not others and then report their confidence again using the same test. People were more likely to inflate their confidence for imagined events compared with nonimagined events, an effect known as “imagination inflation.” Other scientists have produced imagination inflation for unusual or bizarre experiences. In fact, the same kind of inflated confidence can occur when imagination is replaced with some other kinds of activities, such as paraphrasing statements about fictitious events or writing a paragraph explaining how the event might have happened. Still other research shows that the act of imagination can also produce false memories, even in the absence of suggestive “Lost in the Mall” type of descriptions. In one study, when people imagined that they had participated in a bogus national skin-sampling test, they became more confident that the false procedure had occurred, and some people developed detailed memories of it.

Consequences of False Memories

Both false beliefs and false memories can affect behavior. In one study, people who received a false suggestion that they had become ill after eating strawberry ice cream during childhood said that they would be less likely to eat it at a party than before they received the false suggestion. In another study, people who imagined drinking fewer caffeinated soft drinks later believed (and reported) having done just that.

Richard McNally and colleagues discovered that false memories can also produce physiological signs of distress. They found that when people who believed that they had been abducted by aliens listened to their own accounts of some of their most terrifying encounters with the creatures, they showed an increased heart rate, skin electrical conductance, and muscle tension, all symptoms that people with posttraumatic stress disorder show when they remember their own traumas.

How Do We Figure Out If a Memory Is True or False?

In experimental settings, scientists know which events are true and which are false. Thus, they can tell people about their false memories at the end of the study. But what do people do in real life to determine for themselves whether a memory is true or false? In one study, people were asked if they had ever remembered an event that they later found out really did not happen. If so, they were asked to describe the episode, and the ways they tried to figure out if the event was true or false. The two most popular strategies were to consult another person about the event and to use cognitive techniques, such as thinking about or imagining it. These two approaches are not without risks. For example, the consulted person may remember the event partly or completely inaccurately. In addition, a quick review of earlier sections in this entry will make clear the perils of relying on imagination as a means to determining the veracity of an experience.

There are also real-life consequences to real-life false memories. In many countries, false memories have landed innocent people in prison, divided families, drained our health care resources, and clogged our courts. It is these consequences that compel psychological scientists to continue their work.

References:

  1. Garry, M., & Hayne, H. (Eds.). (2006). Do justice and let the sky fall: Elizabeth F. Loftus and her contributions to science, law and academic freedom. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  2. Loftus, E. F., & Davis, D. (2006). Recovered memories. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 2, 469^-98.
  3. McNally, R. J. (2003). Remembering trauma. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Return to the overview of Eyewitness Memory in Forensic Psychology.