What is False Memories?

False memories is a broad term used to refer to various aspects of memory errors and distortions that involve not only misremembering specific aspects or details of our experiences but also remembering events that never took place at all. False memories can range from common everyday errors such as when you clearly remember leaving your car keys on the table but you actually put them in your jacket, to much more extreme errors such as remembering as an adult during therapy that your day care provider sexually abused you when you were a young child when in fact no such abuse actually happened. False memories can be very compelling and seemingly real to the individual, and it is thus difficult for that person or outside observers to determine whether the memory is veridical or false. As such, the occurrence of false memories has widespread implications in legal arenas when allegations are made based on a person’s recollections. A wide body of research studies has examined  the  circumstances  under  which  false  memories may occur, the cognitive and social processes involved in evoking false memories, and the types of individuals particularly prone to these memory errors and distortions.

What Factors Influence The Occurrence Of False Memories?

Memories are not necessarily veridical recordings of our experiences. However, memory errors and distortions are rarely random. Rather, they reflect principled properties of our memory systems and arise from normal cognitive processes involved in perceiving, comprehending, interacting with others, and remembering. For example, research has shown that people will misremember what they inferred or imagined happened and believe it actually happened, such as when they read a story in which a character dropped a glass pitcher and they erroneously remember having read that the pitcher shattered (which would be a reasonable implication but not necessarily what happened). Similarly, numerous studies have demonstrated that large numbers of people falsely remember having experienced things that were not in fact presented, such as erroneously believing they heard the word “doctor” after having heard a list of words thematically related to the concept of doctor (e.g., “nurse, physician, hospital”).

Imagination can have a profound influence on the accuracy of one’s memory, and numerous studies have shown that imagining events that did not occur can increase the incidence of people falsely believing they did. For example, people will indicate greater confidence that they experienced a particular event in their childhood (e.g., spilling a punchbowl at a wedding) in relation to the number of times they were induced to imagine the event occurring. Likewise, vividly imagining performing various actions (e.g., breaking a pencil) can lead people to falsely claim to have actually performed those actions. The negative impact of imagination on memory accuracy is particularly marked when the imagined events are plausible and are imagined vividly and with minimal cognitive effort.

There are also important social influences on memory. False memories can arise from listening to other people’s recollections and versions of what happened, with people incorporating erroneous details from the narratives of others into their own recollections.

Memory Errors In Eyewitnesses

The occurrence of false memories is especially problematic when dealing with eyewitnesses and crime victims. A host of research studies have examined the reliability of eyewitnesses’ recollections and have shown that even in naturalistic situations in which the costs of mistakes have serious consequences, people’s memories are malleable and not wholly reliable. Such research has shown that people’s memories can be influenced by suggestions from others. One manner in which this happens is when subtle changes in the wording of questions bias a witness’s recollections. For example, when a question asks about how fast the car was going when it smashed into the other car, which implies a higher-speed collision then when the question asks about how fast the car was going when it bumped into the other car, people remember higher speeds and even recall seeing broken glass. Another manner in which people’s memories are influenced by suggestions from others is when misinformation is provided after the witnessed event. For instance, when people are asked about how fast the car was going when it went by the stop sign, when in fact it had been a yield sign, they may then misremember having seen the suggested item (the stop sign). This “misinformation effect” is enhanced by the perceived authoritativeness and credibility of the person providing the misinformation, and people can come to believe quite confidently that their erroneous recollections are accurate. The relationship between a person’s confidence and the actual accuracy is not very strong in fact.

Another important factor to consider with regard to the reliability of a witness’s memories is the stress and emotionality of the situation. The stressfulness of a situation can negatively affect memory accuracy, with increased violence and stress often leading to vivid but not necessarily veridical memories.

At the root of many false memories are source misattributions—that is, when people incorrectly attribute a remembered event to the wrong source, such as falsely believing you had seen something that was in fact imagined or inferred, falsely remembering having heard something that you actually read, or falsely remembering one person having told you something or performed an action when in fact it was someone else.

Memories can arise from many different sources— from our everyday perceptual experiences such as seeing and hearing, to our internal world of thoughts, feelings, inferences, and imagination. Our ability to determine the source or origin of our memories depends in part on the qualitative features that comprise that memory (e.g., perceptual details such as the color of someone’s shirt or the sound of his or her voice, contextual details such as the time or place of the event, affective details such as our thoughts, feelings, and reactions), in part on our beliefs about our memories (e.g., “This seems so vivid it must have actually happened”), and in part on the specificity of the criteria we use to judge our memories. False memories therefore can arise when the features of a memory or our beliefs about what memories should seem like provide misleading cues as to the memory’s true source (e.g., an event that is plausible and vividly imagined with minimal cognitive effort or attention is particularly likely to be mistakenly judged as real). Furthermore, false memories are more likely when people over-rely on a general sense of familiarity to infer that something really happened.

What Predisposes Individuals To False Memories?

What factors make particular people vulnerable to false memories? Some research has suggested that individual differences in imagery vividness, absorption, dissociation, and hypnotic suggestibility may be related to the incidence of false memories. These factors can increase the vividness of one’s memory and bring about a focus on emotional aspects of one’s memories, both of which can increase source misattributions.

Across the life span, there are also some important developmental differences in the occurrence of false memories. Young  children  are  more  susceptible  to suggestion and generally show increased rates of source misattributions relative to young adults. For example, when young children are questioned repeatedly with leading questions and implanted misinformation, they may incorporate this into their memories and produce reports that can be substantially different than what in fact transpired. Children’s increased vulnerability to false memories may be due to several factors, including immature memory systems in the still developing brain, limitations in their ability to conceptualize and verbalize their experiences, and an over-reliance on authority figures.

At the other end of the spectrum is an increased incidence of memory errors and distortion seen in older adults under some circumstances. Older adults tend to make more source misattributions than do young adults (confusions between actions they performed and imagined performing, what they said and what they imagined saying, and what they saw and what they imagined seeing). However, some older adults perform at levels equivalent to their young adult counterparts, whereas others show substantially higher error rates. These individual differences among people of the same advanced age are mediated in part by the overall functioning of their frontal lobes. Several studies have shown that older individuals with impairments in frontal lobe functioning show disproportionately higher rates of memory errors and distortions.

General Concerns About False Memories In Forensic Settings

There are several situations potentially involving false memories that are especially relevant to court cases. The overall reliability of the recollections of witnesses and victims is an important factor to consider in light of various research findings regarding the many ways in which memories can be influenced by  suggestive  questioning  and  misinformation. The increased vulnerabilities of young children to such factors is especially relevant when their testimony is the primary evidence in court cases (e.g., in cases involving  sexual  abuse  in  day  care  settings). Age-related memory impairments in older adult witnesses are also an issue. Another area of concern involves memories of alleged childhood sexual abuse recovered in adulthood. This is a controversial subject. On the one hand, there are cases in which the allegations are erroneous, having arisen in part from suggestive therapeutic practices such as guided imagery, hypnotherapy, and dream journaling. On the other hand, there are cases in which individuals have apparently forgotten such abuses for extensive periods of time and memories are triggered by some current life circumstance.


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