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  • Writer's pictureDillon Murphy

Memory Malfunctions: A Discussion of Research on False Memory

Updated: Feb 28, 2023


PIA_Agadzhanyan & Murphy, 2020
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Memory Malfunctions: A Discussion of Research on False Memory

Karina Agadzhanyan and Dillon Murphy

People often believe that memory functions like a video camera, capturing and storing the specific details of events occurring throughout their lives. In reality, we are subject to false memories where we misremember what happened or remember things that didn’t happen. In some instances, memories can be distorted due to the integration of actual memories with external influences such as suggestions from others, schemas, or relying on gist-based memory, resulting in some correct elements but inaccuracies for many specific details. In other cases, people may remember an event that never occurred, often with a great deal of confidence. These cases where people’s memory can be distorted as well as instances of false memory for real-life experiences demonstrate how our memory may not be as reliable as we think.

Many instances of false memory involve people misremembering details as simple as the appearance or identity of recently seen objects or people. For example, after watching a video of a crime and answering leading questions about the crime and the colors of key objects involved, more than a quarter of people were successfully led to believe that a vehicle involved in the crime was white when it was actually blue (Loftus, Levidow, & Duensing, 1992). In a similar study, participants were presented with videos of car accidents and answered questions about the events occurring in the films. Specifically, participants were asked about the speed of the vehicles involved in the crash. When the questions included words like “smashed,” rather than “contacted” or “hit,” participants often later remembered false details such as seeing broken glass and also recalled that the vehicles were traveling at significantly higher speeds (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). These findings suggest that false memories can be created by combining actual memories with external influences, resulting in memory for the gist of a scene but distorted specific details.

In addition to the misinformation effect where memory can be inaccurate due to erroneous information following an event, our memory also often utilizes a concept referred to as gist memory where we capture the gist of a scene, but few of the specific details. Gist memory suggests that we remember interpretations of concepts (meaning, patterns, relations) as a result of encoding the surface form of items as opposed to specific features. For example, in the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm (DRM; Deese, 1959; Roediger & McDermott, 1995), participants are presented with lists of associated words along a particular theme, such as “pillow,” “dark,” and “bed.” On a subsequent recognition test, participants often recognize words that were not presented on the lists but are in line with the associated theme (e.g., sleep). This recognition of critical lures suggests that participants remember that the gist of the list was “sleep,” resulting in subsequent false memory of this word being on the list.

When relying on gist-based memory, people tend to remember the gist of what happened and let schemas, a collection of knowledge based on past experiences that help people to both comprehend and interpret new information, fill in the rest. In a classic example, Brewer and Treyens (1981) had participants wait in a graduate student office and later questioned them about the contents of said office. Although not present, participants frequently recalled the office containing books, likely because they are typically found in an office and fit the schema for what belongs in an office, resulting in a schema-based intrusion. Thus, an individual's prior experiences can influence how they comprehend and remember information.

While our memory can be influenced by prior knowledge, sometimes triggering the recall of distorted information, research has also demonstrated that entirely new memories of real-life experiences, such as autobiographical or childhood memories, can be implanted. Through the power of suggestion, people have been led to falsely believe that they got lost in a shopping mall, were hospitalized, or spilled a bowl of punch at a wedding (Loftus, 1997; Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Although participants didn’t initially remember these false events, repeated exposure through follow-up interviews increased familiarity for these events, also making the memories feel more credible. Enhanced familiarity can also result in source errors, where people confuse or forget the true source of a memory. As a result, over time, people may forget the origin of a memory and incorporate it into their memory as a real autobiographical event, creating a fabricated memory.

By mixing false experiences with events that actually occurred (according to family members), Loftus and Pickrell (1995) established credibility to these plausible childhood memories and successfully implanted a fabricated memory. However, some have questioned the validity of these experiments (e.g., Brewin & Andrews, 2017) since there is no way to verify whether someone was lost in a shopping mall as an adolescent. In response to this issue, Braun, Ellis, and Loftus (2002) investigated whether they could implant a false, impossible memory. After presenting participants with advertisements for Disneyland featuring Bugs Bunny (a Warner Brothers character, thus making it impossible to meet Bugs Bunny at Disneyland), about 16% of participants who viewed the ads with Bugs Bunny (rather than a control ad) recalled meeting Bugs Bunny during their trip to Disneyland, and many recalled quite a bit of detail, even after the researchers debriefed them about the goals of the study. Thus, through the power of suggestion, plausibility, and credibility, fabricated memories can be successfully implanted.

In sum, memory inaccuracies can result from misleading information presented following an event (misinformation effect), the influence of schemas, perceived familiarity, as well as source confusion. While the discussed findings were demonstrated in laboratory settings, false memory remains a popular topic in our legal system. For example, court cases on past abuse frequently rely on subjective memory rather than physical evidence. Although there are many true victims of violence, there have been cases where memories of past abuse may have been fabricated (see Otgaar, Ruiter, Howe, Hoetmer, & Reekum, 2016). Specifically, there have been many cases involving children making false accusations against teachers and parents based on false memories as a result of suggestive interviewing (Howe & Knott, 2015). To illustrate, in a child abuse case known as the “Galileo” case, elementary school children were falsely convinced that they were abused by their teacher as a result of suggestion from parents, school authorities, and poor therapy techniques (Otgaar et al., 2016). With no physical evidence, past child abuse cases are just one example, among many, in which false memories can result in wrongful punishment (e.g., Thompson-Cannino, Cotton, & Torneo, 2009) and exemplify the serious consequences that can accompany memory malfunctions.

Although the famous lost in the mall study has been called into question (e.g., Crook & McEwen, 2019), it is still cited in many child abuse cases and has become a popular scapegoat for those questioning anyone making claims of past trauma. False memories can trick not only judges and juries but also victims and even alleged perpetrators, potentially leading to false convictions. While many people are confident that their memory is reliable, we are all prone to the fallibility of memory and false memories may occur more often than we think. These instances can range from the inconsequential, such as remembering a happy childhood event like meeting Bugs Bunny, but also situations with serious repercussions like falsely accusing someone of abuse. Human memory clearly does not function like a video camera and is not as reliable as we may think, thus, we should all be aware of the potential for memory malfunctions and take steps to minimize any negative consequences before it’s too late.


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