Tag Archives: false memory

The Misinformation Effect:Why our memories can’t be trusted

Uncle Ron

We all have the uncle (or aunt, or grandparent, or wacky fifth cousin twice removed) who likes to reminisce about how “When I was a kid…” he used to walk uphill both ways to school, or she helped her mama with all the chores before she was asked, or he never disrespected his parents.

We fully recognize that their memory has taken on a tinge of unreality and, in response, we are ready with the prerequisite eye roll or groan, recognizing that “Uncle Rob’s memory is a few bricks shy of a full load.”

We fully accept that their memories are somewhat lacking.

But what if I told you that it isn’t just Uncle Rob and Aunt Cheryl? What if I were to point my finger at you, and tell you that your memory is just as false as crazy cousin Wally’s?

a1We like to think that our memories are ironclad. Often, in disagreements and arguments, we site our recollection of events as solid, irrefutable back up of our version of reality. We don’t pause to consider when our [spouse, parent, friend] refutes our version of the experience with their own version of events that we might be the one who is wrong. We tell ourselves he/she is simply wrong. They are remembering incorrectly. It happened the way we replay it in our heads.

But, if their memory can be incorrect, why do we assume that our own isn’t inaccurate as well? Why do we somehow believe that we simply are better at remembering?

False memories have gotten a lot of attention lately with the documentary series “Making a Murderer.” Anyone who’s on Facebook couldn’t escape the indignation that permeated half the posts several months ago. Many watching the series felt a sense of moral outrage that an innocent man could have had his life taken from him in such a way. How could such a mistake be made! It’s unacceptable! How does this happen?!

The truth is, it happens very easily. Rather than being the anomaly, a little digging shows that it is not an uncommon tale. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has been pointing out this flaw in our memories and by extension our legal system for years. Check out her TedTalk on the subject here

Eye witness testimonies are frequently wrong. They are wrong, not because of some vindictive purpose of the witness, but due to the inherent flaws in memory.

Through a series of experiments, Loftus found that simple semantics changed the testimony of a witness.

a2If an individual was asked how fast a car was going when it “smashed” into another vehicle versus how fast a car was going when it “hit” another vehicle, the witness would raise the mph of the car because the word “smash” implies more force. Same accident, different wording equaled different memory of the events.

Loftus decided to take the susceptibility of our memory to alteration one step further. She decided to see if a completely false memory was planted, it could cause a person to believe something that they did not see or experience at all.

Through a series of experiments, she found that, absolutely, we can come to believe that things happened that did not happen. She calls this the misinformation effect.

For instance, if an individual is told that when they were very young he became separated from his parents in a mall and that he wandered terrified and lost, the individual is likely to begin “remembering” details of the event–even though it never actually happened.

a3Our memories are susceptible to suggestion. They can be altered.

As a Psych professor, I decided that my skeptical students could benefit from a little experiment of their own. They recorded a memory of their own in as much detail as they could remember and they were then told to rate the accuracy of the memory on a scale of one to ten. The memory had to be one in which another individual was involved. They were then to interview that individual and record their version of the memory in as much detail as the individual remembered it. They were then told to compare the two sets of memories.

The next part of the assignment was even more interesting. They were told to try to sew misinformation. The goal was to plant false memories and to see if they were believed. To aid the success of the experiment, they were told that they had to come up with plausible additions, things that easily could have happened.

The result of their experiment was that most of the students realized that their memory wasn’t nearly as reliable as they originally believed it to be. When they compared it to the other individual’s memory, they found things they had forgotten and many discrepancies between the two sets of memories.

Secondly, about fifty percent of the students were successfully able to plant false memories. It was far easier than any of us had believed to warp and change an individual’s memory of an event. In fact, it was a little disturbing to see how easy it was to alter a person’s memories and it left most of us with the uncomfortable reality that rather than looking at our memories as a movie played back in our minds, they should be regarded with suspicion and doubt.

So, what does this mean to you? The next time you are entrenched in your belief that your version of events is the accurate one, you might want to take a step back and reconsider–memory is malleable and downright faulty–and it is certainly not a hill for relationships to die on.