Messing With Memory

New research finds that it’s alarmingly easy to create false memories for people, even when they know an event didn’t happen.  Psychologists Andrew Clark, Robert A. Nash, Gabrielle Fincham, and Giuliana Mazzoni conducted a three-stage experiment: 

In Session 1 participants imitated simple actions, and in Session 2 they saw doctored video-recordings containing clips that falsely suggested they had performed additional (fake) actions. As in earlier studies, this procedure created powerful false memories. In Session 3, participants were debriefed and told that specific actions in the video were not truly performed. Beliefs and memories for all critical actions were tested before and after the debriefing.

The BPS Research Digest summarizes the study’s main conclusion: “The take-home finding is that for 25 per cent of the fake actions, the participants now reported significantly stronger memory scores than belief scores – in other words, their (false) memory of having performed the fake actions persisted even though they often no longer believed they’d performed the actions.”  

The study raises some ethical questions, according to the psychologists.  “To the extent that debriefing might not always completely ‘undo’ the effects of suggestive manipulation, we might question the ethics of inducing false memories in experimental participants,” they write. “Is it ethical for participants to leave research labs with remnants of non-believed false memory content in the forefront of their minds?”

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  1. frankenduf says:

    this reminds me of the Cicero technique of interrogation- when u lie to get the suspect to confess- there have been documented cases of people ‘confessing’ and even ‘remembering’ committing the crime, even when they were innocent!?- btw, i had something like that happen to me, and i can tell any incredulous readers that it is a powerful effect!

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  2. Basil White says:

    Don’t you remember? This study never happened. They just made it up. You and I talked about it a couple of months ago.

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  3. elboku says:

    Trial lawyers know that all too well: eyewitnesses are often the worst witnesses of all. They ‘fill-in’ the blanks of what they witness to make a memory. When you truly listen and probe a witness’ memory; you realize much of what they remember makes no real sense at all or is not related to the scene. But people are loathe to give up their memory even when confronted with obvious implausibilities.

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    • tmeier says:

      I witnessed an accident years ago. While waiting for the cops to show I made notes and sketches of what happened. Nearly a year later when it came to court I got a call from the attorney defending the guy who had run a red light hitting two other vehicles. The lawyer asked me a lot of questions which seemed to be designed to confuse me, at one point I said, ‘wait I’ll go and get my notes”, in a sinking tone he said “you made notes”. “Yeah, at the scene while I was waiting for the police three pages and a sketch”. He said, “That won’t be necessary.” Three weeks later I get a call from one of the people hit. Turns out they settled and in the shop talk after the lawyer I spoke to said, “we had this whole thing squashed except for this one guy who made notes”. I was the only thing preventing a gross miscarriage of justice which the perpetrator and his attorney would have gleefully inflicted on the victims.

      Always make notes.

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    • marklark says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Une Personne says:

        Misspelled, not misused. In the way he’s using it, it’s the adjective loath, rather than the verb loathe.

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      • George says:

        1st: You definitely misspelled “misused.”

        2nd: I don’t think you know all the definitions for the word “loathe.” In the context of the comment you are replying to, it is my understanding that it is used correctly. In this context, to be “loathe” to do something means “to be strongly egotistically against” doing that thing, not “to abhor” as you may be familiar as being the most common usage of the word “loathe.”

        Not trying to be a dick, just FYI.

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  4. Andrew says:

    Sounds like they need a neuralizer.

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  5. RGJ says:

    This syndrome is times 10 in children. There was a horrible case in NJ in the 80s where prosecutors pounded abuse stories into kindergartners until their stories convicted a young woman — exonerated only years later. Abused the kids something terrible, never mind the poor woman.

    The analogy I heard is that Week One you ask the 5 year old kid if they hurt their thumb — they say no. Week Two they are saying they sort of remember it. Week Three they are telling you stuff the doctor said in the Emergency Room.

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  6. Eric M Jones says:

    I did a short stint working for United Press.This gave me a tremendous respect for writers, editors and reporters. One of the things I learned from them was–

    If you didn’t write it down at the time–it didn’t happen the way you think.

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  7. Double_entry_required says:

    The most obvious controversy this relates to is false memory syndrome. So this is just another nail in the coffin of the recovered memory movement.

    I wonder how many people were thrown in prison over false memories induced by therapists using hypnosis and visualization?

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  8. Jason says:

    I can definitely believe this from teaching high-school science. Kids will come in with previous beliefs about how things work and they can memorize the right answer until the test but when you talk to them years later they are right back to those original beliefs. It’s tough to find ways to experientially debunk those previous thoughts effectively enough that their memories now tell them that their original beliefs were wrong and then build from there.

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