I have a strong memory of climbing over the backyard fence (when I was around 3) and onto the back of my pet tyrannosaurus. It’s as clear as any other memory of that time and I mentally “see” his friendly smile and feel the rough warmth of his skin.
Obviously it never happened, yet it is indistinguishable from any of my “true” memories.
You might think it is just me but it is suprisingly easy to implant a “false” memory into anyone – even if they are expecting it.
Researchers have used lists of words to convince readers that they have read a word which was never on the list. It works by having a long list (maybe 25 words) about a single topic, say “hospital” including nurse, hypodermic, bed etc, but leaving off an obviously related word (such as doctor). When asked to recall the word list, most people “remember” seeing the missing word as well.These memories are very strong – some experimental subjects became very agitated and aggressive towards researchers complaining that the researchers were mistaken – the word was obviously on the list. Indeed, many could “remember” the font or colour of the word.
Another study asked questions about being lost in a shopping centre at an early age. By repeating a description of a childhood (non) event, people progressively began to “recall” more about a day when they were indeed lost in the mall – embellishing the event with details not given by the researchers.
In the 1980s, when suppressed memory recovery became a popular counselling tool, numerous people began to recall previous incidences including severe childhood abuse. Arguments flew about false accusations and false memories versus people remembering traumatizing ordeals which they had “blocked” from memory. The false memory studies bring an uncomfortable light on such revelations. Where these people the victims of early abuse or were they victims of (unintentionally) planted memories provided by the therapist’s probing?
Perhaps some people are more susceptible to false memories. Obviously it would be a little unethical to study traumatised people for affinity to false memories. Instead McNally et al studied people who had strong memories of alien abduction (feeling that the scientific community would not make a case for these being true memories). Sure enough, those people who had memories of abductions needed fewer words in a word list to create a false memory of an extra word.
It doesn’t mean that memories of abduction (or abuse) are not real – perhaps there really are green men out to probe you – but it does mean that people have to be careful about any eyewitness testimony.
Clancy SA, McNally RJ, Schacter DL, Lenzenweger MF, Pitman RK (2002) Memory distortion in people reporting abduction by aliens. Journal of Abnormal
Psychology, 111, 455-461.
Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725.
Roediger, H.L. & McDermott, K.B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words that were not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. 21, 803-814.