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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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