What Is False Memory?
Over the past quarter-century, false memory has been one of the most extensively studied topics in psychology. Practical motivations, in particular, have abounded as there are some high-stakes situations in which the consequences of false memories are quite serious (e.g., courtroom testimony, eyewitness identifications of suspects, histories taken during psychotherapy, recountings of battlefield events, histories taken during emergency room treatment, terrorism interrogations). The memories that are retrieved in those circumstances are affect-laden, and hence, one of the most enduring questions about false memory is how it is influenced by emotional states that accompany past experience (e.g., Howe, 2007; Loftus, 1993; Loftus & Bernstein, 2004; Stein, Ornstein, Tversky, & Brainerd, 1997). [. . .]
False memory merely refers to situations in which subjects recollect events that, in fact, they did not experience. For instance, if a friend asks what you ate at a baseball game a week ago and what you drank at lunch yesterday, you may say hot dog and milk, although you consumed neither. This illustrates three features of false memories as they are normally measured. First, misremembered events are not ones that subjects have never experienced, such as being abducted by space aliens or winning the lottery, so that they are false in the narrow sense of not being part of a particular context that is specified in the experimental design (baseball game, lunch). Second, misremembered events are usually familiar: Hot dogs, unlike baklava, are a common food, and milk, unlike suanmeitang, is a common drink. Third, misremembered events fit the gist of the target context (hot dogs are baseball food; milk is a luncheon beverage). Thus, the false memories that are measured in the modal experiment are semantic errors (errors in the memory of facts or events) that are rooted in strong meaning resemblance to actual events.
Although these are modal features that hold for most published experiments, none is universal. Researchers occasionally study false memories of events that subjects have never experienced (e.g., being in a traffic accident, being lost in a mall), that are unfamiliar or even bizarre, or that do not share semantic content with the experimental context (e.g., Santa Claus in a baseball game video, a gorilla in a ballet video; for a review, see Brainerd & Reyna, 2005). Nevertheless, the bulk of what we know about how emotion affects false memory is for familiar, previously experienced events that preserve the meaning of the events to which subjects are exposed. That still leaves very wide latitude with respect to how false memories are induced and what types of events subjects are exposed to.
Spontaneous False Memory
In our example of eating hot dogs and drinking milk, suppose that your memory errors were pursuant to recall and recognition probes such as: What did you eat at the game? Did you eat a hot dog at the game? What did you drink at lunch? Did you drink a glass of milk at lunch? Apparently, such errors must be attributable to spontaneous, endogenous distortion processes that are a normal part of how episodic memory operates; that is, they are natural concomitants of trying to remember familiar events that fit with the gist of events that were actually experienced. [. . .]
Currently, the dominant procedure for studying spontaneous false memories is a word list paradigm, the Deese/Roediger/McDermott (DRM; Deese, 1959; Roediger & McDermott, 1995) illusion. Subjects study short lists of related words (e.g., town, state, capital, streets, subway, village, . . . ) from which a critical word (city) is missing, followed by recognition or recall tests. Recall or recognition of this missing word (usually called a critical distractor or critical lure) is the false memory measure. The key feature of the DRM illusion for this review is that it is easily adapted to study the effects of emotion. With respect to emotional content, Budson et al. (2006; see also Pesta, Murphy, & Sanders, 2001) pointed out that the DRM illusion can be compared for negatively valenced lists (e.g., mad, fear, hate, rage, temper, . . . ; critical distractor = anger), positively valenced lists (e.g., child, cute, infant, mother, doll, . . . ; critical distractor = baby), and neutral lists (e.g., blouse, sleeves, pants, tie, button, . . . ; critical distractor = shirt). With respect to emotional context, Storbeck and Clore (2005) pointed out that the DRM illusion can be compared for subjects who were in different mood states when lists were studied or tested.
Implanted False Memory
Returning to our example of eating hot dogs and drinking milk, suppose that your false memories were pursuant to probes such as: You ate a hot dog at the game, didn’t you? You drank a glass of milk at lunch, didn’t you? Now, you are confronted with clear suggestions about what you ate and drank, which are hallmarks of lawyerly questioning and police interviews. Presumably, you will be more likely to misremember than you were before. If so, it can no longer be assumed that endogenous distortion processes are responsible because external distortion is present. [. . .]
There is little doubt that suggestion reshapes memory for the events of our lives. [. . .]
Source: Bookbinder, S. H., & Brainerd, C. J. (2016). Emotion and false memory: The context–content paradox. Psychological Bulletin, 142(12), 1315–1351. Copyright © 2016, American Psychological Association.
False memory development is an important consideration for not only psychologists, but also anyone working with others. Consider a time when you felt lied to. Was it a lie or a false memory? How do we know? There are many ideas about how this occurs, but in essence, as suggested by the readings so far, if we do not effectively process what our senses are introducing, we will have decreased or inaccurate memory development. This also could be due to emotions and cognitive load issues, as we previously discussed. See Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Are Our Memories Truth or Fiction? to hear more about one psychologist’s studies. Regardless, being aware of the many variables that can affect how we process information and thereby affect learning better prepares us to strive for improved memory development.
Applying Skeptical Inquiry: Are Our Memories Truth or Fiction?
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studies false memories and the power of suggestion in creating false memories. In 1994, her research experiments revealed that she could convince a quarter of the study participants that they were once lost in a shopping center as children. Additional researchers have found that similar false memories could be embedded by showing photographs of hot air balloons to children and telling them about a ride that they never actually took (Wade, Garry, Read, & Lindsay, 2002). In the following TED Talk, Loftus shares some astonishing stories about information people are “sure” about—but is in fact untrue—and discusses the repercussions of false memories.