A false memory is a psychological phenomenon where a person recalls something that did not happen. There is a growing body of evidence that false memories are created whenever memories are recalled.
False memory is often considered regarding childhood sexual abuse. This phenomenon was initially investigated by psychological pioneers Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud. Freud wrote The Aetiology of Hysteria, where he discussed repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma in their relation to hysteria. Elizabeth Loftus has, since her debuting research project in 1974, been a lead researcher in memory recovery and false memories.
False memory syndrome recognizes false memory as a prevalent part of one's life in which it affects the person's mentality and day-to-day life. False memory syndrome differs from false memory in that the syndrome is heavily influential in the orientation of a person's life, while false memory can occur without this significant effect. The syndrome takes effect because the person believes the influential memory to be true. However, its research is controversial and the syndrome is excluded from identification as a mental disorder and, therefore, is also excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. False memory is an important part of psychological research because of the ties it has to a large number of mental disorders, such as PTSD.
- 1 Manipulation of memory recall through language
- 2 Reliability of memory recall
- 3 Therapy-induced memory recovery
- 4 In children
- 5 Commonly held false memories
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
Manipulation of memory recall through language
In 1974, Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer conducted a study to investigate the effects of language on the development of false memory. The experiment involved two separate studies.
In the first test, 45 participants were randomly assigned to watch different videos of a car accident, in which separate videos had shown collisions at 20 miles per hour, 30 miles per hour, and 40 miles per hour. Afterwards, participants filled out a survey. The survey asked the question, "About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" The question always asked the same thing, except the verb used to describe the collision varied. Rather than "smashed", other verbs used included "bumped", "collided", "hit", or "contacted". Participants estimated collisions of all speeds to average between 35 miles per hour to just below 40 miles per hour. If actual speed were the main factor in estimate, it could be assumed that participants would have lower estimates for lower speed collisions. Instead, the word being used to describe the collision seemed to better predict the estimate in speed rather than the speed itself.
The second experiment also showed participants videos of a car accident, but the critical thing was the verbiage of the follow-up questionnaire. 150 participants were randomly assigned to three conditions. Those in the first condition were asked the same question as the first study using the verb "smashed". The second group was asked the same question as the first study, replacing "smashed" with "hit". The final group was not asked about the speed of the crashed cars. The researchers then asked the participants if they had seen any broken glass, knowing that there was no broken glass in the video. The responses to this question had shown that the difference between whether broken glass was recalled or not heavily depended on the verb used. A larger sum of participants in the "smashed" group declared that there was broken glass.
In this study, the first point brought up in discussion is that the words used to phrase a question can heavily influence the response given. Second, the study indicates that the phrasing of a question can give expectations to previously ignored details, and therefore, a misconstruction of our memory recall. This indication supports false memory as an existing phenomenon.
Article adjustment on eyewitness report
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Loftus' meta-analysis on language manipulation studies suggested the phenomenon effects taking hold on the recall process and products of the human memory. Even the smallest adjustment in a question, such as the article preceding the supposed memory, could alter the responses. For example, having asked someone if they'd seen "the" stop sign, rather than "a" stop sign, provided the respondent with a presupposition that there was a stop sign in the scene. This presupposition increased the number of people responding that they had indeed seen the stop sign.
Adjective implications on eyewitness report
Select adjectives can imply characteristics about an object. Including said adjectives in a prompt can alter participant responses. Harris' 1973 study looks at the differences in answers on the height of a basketball player. Respondents were randomly assigned to have either answered to, "How tall was the basketball player?" or "How short was the basketball player?" Rather than asking participants simply for the height of the basketball player, they used adjectives that had an implication for the numerical results. The difference in height averages that were predicted was 10 inches (250 mm). The adjective provided in a sentence can cause a respondent to exaggerate.
One can trigger false memories by presenting subjects a continuous list of words. When subjects were presented with a second type of the list and asked if the words had appeared on the previous list, they find that the subjects did not recognize the list correctly. When the words on the two lists were semantically related to each other (e.g. sleep/bed), it was more likely that the subjects did not remember the first list correctly and created false memories (Anisfeld & Knapp).
Staged naturalistic events
Subjects were invited in an office and were told to wait there. After this they had to recall the inventory of the visited office. Subjects recognized objects consistent with the “office schema” although they did not appear in the office. (Brewer & Treyens, 1981)
Response to meta-analysis
It has been argued[by whom?] that Loftus and Palmer did not control for outside factors coming from individual participants, such as participants' emotions or alcohol intake, along with many other factors. Despite criticisms such as this, this particular study is extremely relevant to legal cases regarding false memory. The Loftus and Palmer automobile study allowed for the Devlin Committee to create the Devlin Report, which suggested that eyewitness testimony is not reliable standing on its own.
Reliability of memory recall
Presuppositions are an implication through chosen language. If a person is asked, "What shade of blue was the wallet?" The questioner is, in translation, saying, "The wallet was blue. What shade was it?" The question's phrasing provides the respondent with a supposed "fact". This presupposition provides two separate effects: true effect and false effect.
True effect says that the object implied to have existed does exist. With that, the respondent's recall is strengthened, more readily available, and easier to extrapolate from. In true effect, presuppositions make a detail more readily recalled. For example, it would be less likely that a respondent would remember a wallet was blue if the prompt did not say that it was blue. False effect is that the object implied to have existed never was present. Despite this, the respondent is convinced otherwise and allows it to manipulate their memory. It can also alter responses to later questions to keep consistency. Regardless of the effect being true or false, the respondent is attempting to conform to the supplied information, because they assume it to be true.
Construction hypothesis has major implications for explanations on the malleability of memory. Upon asking a respondent a question that provides a presupposition, the respondent will provide a recall in accordance with the presupposition (if accepted to exist in the first place). The respondent will recall the object or detail. The construction hypothesis says that if a true piece of information being provided can alter a respondent's answer, then so can a false piece of information.
Loftus developed the skeleton theory after having run an experiment involving 150 subjects from the University of Washington. The skeleton theory explains the idea of how a memory is recalled, which is split into two categories: the acquisition processes and the retrieval processes.
The acquisition processes are in three separate steps. First, upon the original encounter, the observer selects a stimulus to focus on. The information that the observer can focus on compared to the information in the situation is very small. In other words, a lot is going on around us and we only pick up on a small portion. Therefore, the observer must make a selection on the focal point. Second, our visual perception must be translated into statements and descriptions. The statements represent a collection of concepts and objects; they are the link between the event occurrence and the recall. Third, the perceptions are subject to any "external" information being provided before or after the interpretation. This subsequent set of information can alter recall.
The retrieval processes come in two steps. First, the memory and imagery is regenerated. This perception is subject to what foci the observer has selected, along with the information provided before or after the observation. Second, the linking is initiated by a statement response, "painting a picture" to make sense of what was observed. This retrieval process results in either an accurate memory or a false memory.
Memory retrieval has been associated with the brain's relational processing. In associating two events (in reference to false memory, say tying a testimony to a prior event), there are verbatim and gist representations. Verbatim matches to the individual occurrences (i.e. I do not like dogs because when I was five a chihuahua bit me) and gist matches to general inferences (i.e. I do not like dogs because they are mean). Keeping in line with the fuzzy-trace theory, which suggests false memories are stored in gist representations (which retrieves both true and false recall), Storbeck & Clore (2005) wanted to see how change in mood affected the retrieval of false memories. After using the measure of a word association tool called the Deese–Roediger–McDermott paradigm, the subjects' moods were manipulated. Moods were either oriented towards being more positive, more negative, or were left unmanipulated. Findings suggested that a more negative mood made critical details, stored in gist representation, less accessible. This would imply that false memories are less likely to occur when a subject was in a worse mood.
Therapy-induced memory recovery
Memories recovered through therapy have become more difficult to distinguish between simply being repressed or having existed in the first place. Therapists have used strategies such as hypnotherapy, repeated questioning, and bibliotherapy. These strategies may provoke the recovery of nonexistent events or inaccurate memories. A recent report indicates that similar strategies may have produced false memories in several therapies in the century before the modern controversy on the topic which took place in the 1980s and 1990s. In The Myth of Repressed Memory: False memories and allegations of Sexual Abuse, Elizabeth Loftus writes about how easy it is for her as a therapist to mold people's memories, or prompt them to recall a nonexistent broken glass.
For her there are different possibilities to create false therapy-induced memory. One is the unintentional suggestions of therapists. For example, a therapist might tell their client that, on the basis of their symptoms, it is quite likely that they had been abused as a child. Once this "diagnosis" is made, the therapist sometimes urges the patient to pursue the recalcitrant memories. It is a problem resulting from the fact that people create their own social reality with external information.
Laurence and Perry conducted a study testing the ability to induce memory recall through hypnosis. Subjects were put into a hypnotic state and later woken up. Observers suggested that the subjects were woken up by a loud noise. Nearly half of the subjects being tested concluded that this was true, despite it being false. Although, by therapeutically altering the subject's state, they may have been led to believe that what they were being told was true. Because of this, the respondent has a false recall.
A 1989 study focusing on hypnotizability and false memory separated accurate and inaccurate memories recalled. In open-ended question formation, 11.5% of subjects recalled the false event suggested by observers. In a multiple-choice format, no participants claimed the false event had happened. This result led to the conclusion that hypnotic suggestions produce shifts in focus, awareness, and attention. Despite this, subjects do not mix fantasy up with reality.
Therapy-induced memory recovery is a prevalent subcategory of memory recall prompting discussion of false memory syndrome. This phenomenon is loosely defined, and not a part of the DSM. However, the syndrome suggests that false memory can be declared a syndrome when recall of a false or inaccurate memory takes great effect on your life. This false memory can completely alter the orientation of your personality and lifestyle.
The "lost-in-the-mall" technique is another recovery strategy. This is essentially a repeated suggestion pattern. The person whose memory is to be recovered is persistently said to have gone through an experience even if it may have not happened. This strategy can cause the person to recall the event as having occurred, despite its falsehood.
Therapy-induced memory recovery has made frequent appearances in legal cases, particularly those regarding sexual abuse. Therapists can often aid in creating a false memory in a victim's mind, intentionally or unintentionally. They will associate a patient's behavior with the fact that they have been a victim of sexual abuse, thus helping the memory occur. They use memory enhancement techniques such as hypnosis dream analysis to extract memories of sexual abuse from victims. According to the FMSF (False Memory Syndrome Foundation), these memories are false and are produced in the very act of searching for and employing them in a life narrative. In Ramona v. Isabella, two therapists wrongly prompted a recall that their patient, Holly Ramona, had been sexually abused by her father. It was suggested that the therapist, Isabella, had implanted the memory in Ramona after use of the hypnotic drug sodium amytal. After a nearly unanimous decision, Isabella had been declared negligent towards Holly Ramona. This 1994 legal issue played a massive role in shedding light on the possibility of false memories' occurrences.
In another legal case where false memories were used, they helped a man to be acquitted of his charges. Joseph Pacely had been accused of breaking into a woman's home with the intent to sexually assault her. The woman had given her description of the assailant to police shortly after the crime had happened. During the trial, memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus testified that memory is fallible and there were many emotions that played a part in the woman's description given to police. Loftus has published many studies consistent with her testimony. These studies suggest that memories can easily be changed around and sometimes eyewitness testimonies are not as reliable as many believe.
Another notable case of Maxine Berry, Maxine grew up in the custody of her mother, who opposed the father having contact with her (Berry & Berry, 2001). When the father expressed his desire to attend his daughter's high school graduation, the mother enrolled Maxine in therapy, ostensibly to deal with the stress of seeing her father. The therapist pressed Maxine to recover memories of sex abuse by her father. Maxine broke down under the pressure and had to be psychiatrically hospitalized. She had her tubes tied, so she would not have children and repeat the cycle of abuse. With the support of her husband and primary care physician, Maxine eventually realized that her memories were false and filed a suit for malpractice. The suit brought to light the mother's manipulation of mental health professionals to convince Maxine that she had been sexually abused by her father. In February 1997 Jennifer Gerrietts, Argus Leader, South Dakota Maxine Berry, sued her therapists and clinic that treated her from 1992-1995 and, she says, made her falsely believe she had been sexually and physically abused as a child when no such abuse ever occurred. The lawsuit, filed in February 1997 in Minnehaha Co. Circuit Court South Dakota, states that therapist Lynda O'Connor-Davis had an improper relationship with Berry, both during and after her treatment. The suit also names psychologist Vail Williams, psychiatrist Dr. William Fuller and Charter Hospital and Charter Counseling Center as defendants. Berry and her husband settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.
Although there have been many legal cases in which false memory appears to have been a factor, this does not ease the process of distinguishing between false memory and real recall. Sound therapeutic strategy can help this differentiation, by either avoiding known controversial strategies or to disclosing controversy to a subject. In each case, the recovered memory therapy was declared inadmissible and not scientifically sound. The fact that recovered memories cannot necessarily distinguish between true and false meant the quality of evidence was weakened and the cases concluded against the therapists. The objection to therapeutic recovery techniques has been argued by comparing the ethics of memory elimination techniques such as electroconvulsive therapy.
Harold Merskey published a paper on the ethical issues of recovered-memory therapy. He suggests that if a patient had pre-existing severe issues in their life, it is likely that "deterioration" will occur to a relatively severe extent upon memory recall. This deterioration is a physical parallel to the emotional trauma being surfaced. There may be tears, writhing, or many other forms of physical disturbance. The occurrence of physical deterioration in memory recall coming from a patient with relatively minor issues prior to therapy could be an indication of the recalled memory's potential falsehood.
If a child experienced abuse, it is not typical for them to disclose the details of the event when confronted in an open-ended manner. Trying to indirectly prompt a memory recall can lead to the conflict of source attribution, as if repeatedly questioned the child might try to recall a memory to satisfy a question. The stress being put on the child can make recovering an accurate memory more difficult. Some people hypothesise that as the child continuously attempts to remember a memory, they are building a larger file of sources that the memory could be derived from, potentially including sources other than genuine memories. Children that have never been abused but undergo similar response-eliciting techniques can disclose events that never occurred. If one concludes that the child's recalled memory is false, it is a type I error. Assuming the child did not recall an existing memory, it is a type II error.
One of children's most notable setbacks in memory recall is source misattribution. Source misattribution is the flaw in deciphering between potential origins of a memory. The source could come from an actual occurring perception, or it can come from an induced and imagined event. Younger children, preschoolers in particular, find it more difficult to discriminate between the two. Lindsay & Johnson (1987) concluded that even children approaching adolescence struggle with this, as well as recalling an existent memory as a witness. Children are significantly more likely to confuse a source between being invented or existent.
Commonly held false memories
Similar false memories are sometimes shared by multiple people. One such false memory is that the name of the Berenstain Bears was once spelled Berenstein. Another example consists of false memories of a 1990s movie titled Shazaam starring comedian Sinbad as a genie, which may be a conflation of memories of the comedian wearing a genie costume during a TV presentation of Sinbad the Sailor movies in 1994, and a similarly named 1996 film Kazaam featuring a genie played by Shaquille O'Neal.
A 2010 study examined people who were familiar with the clock at Bologna Centrale railway station, which had been damaged in the Bologna massacre bombing in August 1980. In the study, 92% falsely remembered that the clock had remained stopped since the bombing; in fact, the clock was repaired shortly after the attack but was again stopped 16 years later as a symbolic commemoration of it.
In 2010 the phenomenon of collective false memory was dubbed the "Mandela effect" by self-described "paranormal consultant" Fiona Broome, in reference to a false memory she reports of the death of South African leader Nelson Mandela in the 1980s (when he was in fact still alive), which she claims is shared by "perhaps thousands" of other people. Broome has speculated about alternate realities as an explanation, but most commentators suggest that these are instead examples of false memories shaped by similar factors affecting multiple people, such as social reinforcement of incorrect memories, or false news reports and misleading photographs influencing the formation of memories based on them.
- False memory syndrome, a condition in which a person's identity and relationships are affected by strongly believed but false memories of traumatic experiences.
- Source-monitoring error, an effect in which memories are incorrectly attributed to different experiences than the ones that caused them.
- Misinformation effect, false memories caused by exposure to misleading information presented between the encoding of an event and its subsequent recall.
- Confabulation, the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories without the conscious intention to deceive.
- Repressed memory, the idea that traumatic memories can be repressed and also potentially brought back through therapy.
- Jamais vu, the feeling of unfamiliarity with recognised memories.
- Cryptomnesia, a memory that is not recognised as such.
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