False memory

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False Memories

False memories may be full-blown memories of events that were never experienced or (perhaps more commonly) memories that are distorted (i.e., the event one is remembering actually occurred, but it did not occur in the way that is being recalled). Even though memory can foster an illusion of reliving an experience, it is actually a reconstruction and hence subject to departures from objective facts. This entry focuses on false episodic memories, or inaccurate memories of episodes in one’s past, which can be distinguished from false semantic memories, which include inaccurate knowledge (e.g., erroneously believing that the capital of Russia is St. Petersburg).

For example, when conveying anecdotes in casual social interactions, people sometimes embellish them to make them more interesting, often spicing them with fresh details in subsequent retellings to assure the desired pungency. Although innocent in intent, such embellishments can actually alter the teller’s own memory of the event. Even though the raconteur might be fully aware of the fictional enhancements at the time, he or she may in time come to think of them as actual components of the original event (Tversky and Marsh, 2000).

We distinguish here between two broad classes of episodic false memories: those that arise from internal processes (e.g., the example regarding embellishments) and those that arise from external events (e.g., from hearing other peoples’ erroneous accounts of an event). In the former case, people’s own thoughts, associations, or inferences cause them to misremember the past, whereas in the latter case, the false memories arise from someone else’s overt suggestion or misleading statements.

False Memories Arising from Internal Processes

In everyday conversation, listeners often make inferences that stretch the meaning of the speaker’s explicit words. For example, if a colleague told you that his infant had “stayed awake all night,” you might infer that the baby had cried. Such inferences often insinuate themselves into memory. Indeed, when asked later, one might be likely to recall the statement as having been “the infant cried all night” (Brewer, 1977; Bransford and Franks, 1971).

The literature on the role of schemas (or general world knowledge) on memory also sheds light on the influence that inferences can have on memory. This work is rooted in studies by Bartlett (1932), who demonstrated that when English students were presented with an American Indian folktale that they found difficult to comprehend, the flaws in their memories of the folktale often betrayed British cultural influences.

More recent experimental investigations into internally generated false memories include studies in which people are given short lists of about fifteen related words to remember (e.g., bed, rest, awake, tired, dream). When given an immediate free recall test after such a list (and told to recall every word that is remembered in any order but without guessing), people often recall sleep, a related (but not presented) word (Roediger and McDermott, 1995). This approach, which allows the rapid implanting of numerous mini false memories, enables researchers to manipulate various independent and subject variables in order to observe their effects on false recall (and false recognition) probabilities (Roediger and McDermott, 2000). This work shows not only that people recall and recognize the nonpresented, related words but that they also claim to remember the precise moment of presentation of these (nonpresented) words. In addition, the forgetting function for the related, nonpresented words is less steep than the forgetting function for studied words.

Another recent line of research has investigated the role that imagination can play in distorting memory. The mere act of imagining an event can inflate the probability that a person will come to have a full-blown recollection of the (nonexistent) prior event. This phenomenon has been dubbed imagination inflation (Garry, Manning, and Loftus, 1996; Goff and Roediger, 1998).

Not only can imagining an event that did not previously occur create memories for that event, but also describing an event that did indeed occur can color memory for that event. For example, if expert wine tasters describe a wine they just sampled, it does not change their memory for the wine; if, however, intermediate-level wine tasters attempt to describe the wine just enjoyed, the descriptions skew their later memory of the wine (Melcher and Schooler, 1996). This interference from attempting to verbalize an experience that is not readily amenable to accurate verbal description has been termed “verbal overshadowing” by Jonathan Schooler.

False Memories Arising from External Factors

Some of the best-known false memory work can be considered adaptations of the classic studies of retroactive interference, in which a subsequent event can interfere with memory for a similar, prior event (McGeoch, 1932). In its more modern manifestation, subjects might be presented with a slide show or videotape depicting a car crash and later be exposed to misleading information about this event either through a narrative, suggestive questions, or both. In a classic study by Loftus and Palmer (1974), such a crash was followed by a questionnaire asking people a series of questions about the crash. The critical manipulation was a single verb in one of the questions: contacted, hit, bumped, collided, or smashed. That is, people were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they ___ into each other?” Speed estimates varied markedly as a function of the verb used; when the more dramatic verb smashed was invoked, the average estimated speed was forty-one miles per hour, whereas the verb contacted elicited an average estimate of only thirty-two miles per hour. Even more amazing was that the wording of this single question influenced peoples’ memories even a week later when they were asked, “Did you see any broken glass?” Subjects were more likely to erroneously recollect broken glass if they had encountered the verb smashed a week earlier (relative to the verb hit).

Work within this tradition is often referred to as the misleading-information paradigm or sometimes the eyewitness-memory paradigm. Similar findings with respect to the role of intervening suggestions on peoples’ memories have been demonstrated for police lineups among other domains. Elizabeth Loftus combined this procedure with the imagination-inflation procedures in a case study in which she created a full-blown memory of being lost in a shopping mall in a teenage boy (Chris) who was never actually lost in a mall (Loftus, 1993). Loftus prompted the false memory by having Chris’s brother suggest the incident to Chris, complete with specific details. Two weeks after the initial description of the nonevent, Chris was able to “recall” minute details from this incident, including the balding head and the kind of eyeglasses worn by the man who rescued him. Ira Hyman and his colleagues have performed systematic studies of this type and explored individual differences among people that influence the likelihood of such false memories (Hyman and Billings, 1998).

Processes That Give Rise to False Memories

Many theoretical perspectives have been applied to the study of false memories. We focus here primarily on the Source Monitoring Framework, which has been espoused by Marcia Johnson and her colleagues (Johnson, Hastroudi, and Lindsay, 1993; Johnson and Raye, 1981). Accurate memory requires disentangling recollection of events from speculations, inferences, and imaginings. Achieving the seemingly simple goal is easier in theory than in practice. Simply asking people to focus carefully on whether something was experienced or only imagined or thought and to be sure to recall only what overtly occurred (and not what they inferred or thought) is not sufficient to avoid false memories and may even exacerbate them in some situations (Hicks and Marsh, 2001). Telling people before an encoding phase that they might be misled and that they should encode the information carefully so as not to confuse their thoughts with the overt event may aid them somewhat but is by no means sufficient to eliminate later false memories. Some research has shown that, relative to young adults, old adults have more difficulties in monitoring the retrieval process in order to avoid false memories.

Practical Implications

The fallibility of memory has become a contentious subject not only in psychological theory, but also as a result of its practical implications in the legal system, where the reliability of eyewitness accounts has come increasingly into question. Several conclusions can be safely reached from this research, however. Perhaps the most important point is that a full-blown, vivid recollection of a prior event is not diagnostic of its prior occurrence; it is perfectly possible to vividly recollect an event that was only previously imagined or thought about. The stories we tell ourselves and others color our memory for the object of the story. In this vein, retrieval has been described as a double-edged sword: It helps us remember what occurred previously (the testing effect), but it also can distort memory. Simple instructions to try to avoid false memories are often insufficient to do so.

Finally, memory’s reconstructive nature might be considered a cognitive asset rather than a drawback. Most of our misguided recollections are fairly harmless, and many inferences about another’s conversational intent are probably correct—in the foregoing example, the baby probably was crying all night. Only in the high-stakes atmosphere of, say, the courtroom or the police lineup does it become critical to disentangle the wheat of accurate memory from the chaff of imagination, inference, conjecture, and embellishment.

See Also

Reconstructive Memory


Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. New York: Macmillan.

Bransford, J. D., and Franks, J. J. (1971). The abstraction of linguistic ideas. Cognitive Psychology 2, 331-350.

Brewer, W. F. (1977). Memory for the pragmatic implications of sentences. Memory & Cognition 5, 673-678.

Garry, M., Manning, C. G., and Loftus, E. F. (1996). Imagination inflation: Imagining a childhood event inflates confidences that it occurred. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 3, 208-214.

Goff, L. M., and Roediger, H. L., III. (1998). Imagination inflation for action events: Repeated imaginings lead to illusory recollections. Memory & Cognition 26, 20-33.

Hicks, J. L., and Marsh, R. L. (2001). False recognition occurs more frequently during source identification than during oldnew recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 27, 375-383.

Hyman, I. E., and Billings, F. J. (1998). Individual differences and the creation of false childhood memories. Memory 6, 1-20.

Johnson, M. K., Hashtroudi, S., and Lindsay, D. S. (1993). Source monitoring. Psychological Bulletin 114, 3-28.

Johnson, M. K., and Raye, C. L. (1981). Reality monitoring. Psychological Review 88, 67-85.

Loftus, E. F. (1993). The reality of repressed memories. American Psychologist 48, 518-537.

Loftus, E. F., and Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 13, 585-589.

McGeoch, J. A. (1932). Forgetting and the law of disuse. Psychological Review 39, 352-370.

Melcher, J. M., and Schooler, J. W. (1996). The misremembrance of wines past: Verbal and perceptual expertise differentially mediate verbal overshadowing of taste memory. Journal of Memory and Language 35, 231-245.

Roediger, H. L., and McDermott, K. B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 21, 803-814.

—— (2000). Tricks of memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science 9, 123-127.

Tversky, B., and Marsh, E. (2000). Biased retellings of events yield biased memories. Cognitive Psychology 40, 1-38.

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