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Lying Can Reconstruct Memory: How We Come to Believe Our Own Lies


PIA_Viola & Murphy, 2023
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Lying Can Reconstruct Memory: How We Come to Believe Our Own Lies

Mia Viola and Dillon Murphy

Imagine this scenario: you’re returning home from a party late on a Friday night, only to be confronted by your mother. She’s worried about how you spent your night. In a panic, you lie and tell her that you were at a friend’s house. Over the next few weeks, your mother continues to ask about that night, and you stick to your lie, repeating it over and over. Months later, while talking to your friend, you mention the night you spent at their house. Your friend seems confused and reminds you that you both went to a party, not their house. You’re left feeling bewildered, unable to reconcile the false memory you’ve created with reality. This type of memory distortion may be very common since the average person lies at least once a day (Serota & Levine, 2015), and these lies can result in people subconsciously reconstructing their own memories, leading them to believe their own falsehoods.

Memory is reconstructive, meaning that information available at the time of retrieval can be incorporated into existing memories to create a coherent narrative. As a result, our original recollections of events can be altered through the suggestion of misinformation (Loftus, 2005; Otgaar et al., 2016; Roediger & McDermott, 1995). For example, Loftus and Palmer (1974) demonstrated that after watching videos of a car crash, people provide higher estimates of the speed of the cars involved if the question contained more violent verbs (i.e., “smashed” versus “bumped”). Thus, suggestive information available during retrieval can alter memory, but false memories can also be created through self-created misinformation (i.e., lying).

Lying can significantly increase the chances of creating false memories as the most persuasive lies often combine elements of both truth and falsehoods (Otgaar & Baker, 2018). For instance, a criminal offender may provide a false alibi for an event by including elements of a true experience that did not occur during the time in question. As a result, while the event itself may have happened, it did not take place during the time the crime was committed. This combining and later remembering of details about both the true and false versions of events requires considerable cognitive effort on the part of the liar but is necessary to maintain the deception. To decrease this cognitive load, the brain subconsciously starts to think of the fabricated information as the truth, eliminating the need for the liar to keep track of conflicting storylines (Otgaar & Baker, 2018). Thus, the creation of false memories is demonstrated as a subconscious process that decreases the cognitive load typically associated with telling a lie.

Fabrication inflation, the greater belief in self-fabricated events following acts of lying, may explain the heightened occurrence of false memories related to deception (Riesthuis et al., 2022). For example, Pickel (2004) explored how self-fabricated information affects our ability to recall the truth. Participants watched a video of a robbery, and some participants were instructed to make up false descriptions of the suspected robber. When retested a week later, participants who had fabricated their descriptions of the robber often confused their own false portrayals with the truth. Thus, even after a relatively short period of time, liars can struggle to distinguish their lies from reality as constructing and sharing false information can lead to an inflation of belief, thus altering original memories.

The anchoring effect, which occurs the moment a lie is told, ties the liar to their earliest fabricated version of events. For instance, if someone lies to a friend about what they did on a particular day, they cannot change the lie afterward, or the friend may realize they are being deceived. This can motivate the liar to stick to an exact version of their false story to avoid being caught. As a result, the initial version of the lie is the most influential in memory distortion (Polage, 2012). For example, Polage (2017) explored the effects of actually telling a lie, as opposed to merely planning to lie, on an individual's belief in the truth. Participants were divided into four groups: preparing and telling a lie, spontaneously telling a lie, preparing a lie but not telling it, or neither preparing nor telling a lie. Two weeks later, all participants completed a Life Events Inventory test, assessing whether they had experienced specific events before the age of ten. Results indicated that participants who told a lie, regardless of whether it was planned or spontaneous, were more prone to incorporating false events into their memories compared to those who only planned a lie but never shared it. Thus, the act of telling a lie holds greater potential to modify true memories compared to simply planning a lie, highlighting the influence of the anchoring effect.

Another factor that can contribute to the incorporation of self-created information into true memories is motivated forgetting whereby individuals forget certain events because they desire to do so (Polage, 2017). For example, an individual who experienced a traumatic event may have no recollection of the event as memories of the event are extremely unpleasant. When individuals lie, they may experience cognitive dissonance—a state of having conflicting thoughts or attitudes when personal beliefs contradict actions. This dissonance can motivate individuals to suppress memories of activities that do not align with their morals. Similarly, individuals uncomfortable with lying are more inclined to believe their own lies to alleviate the guilt associated with deception (Shu et al., 2011). This suppression of cognitive dissonance motivates liars to forget that they lied, helping them align their beliefs with their actions.

Given that lying is a common occurrence in daily life, it is essential to consider how lying can affect our genuine memories. Society should be more mindful of how seemingly harmless lies can lead to the creation of false memories and the erosion of accurate recollections. The consequences of false memories resulting from lies can be far-reaching, as an eyewitness who fabricates information about a suspect may contribute to wrongful convictions and arrests in criminal investigations. Moreover, the reconstruction of memories due to lying within personal relationships can deteriorate the trust and intimacy shared between individuals. While it may be unrealistic to expect individuals to completely abstain from lying, it is important for people to be mindful of how lies can affect memory.


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