Search the Site

More Evidence on the Unreliability of Memory

Our podcast about false memory, “Sure, I Remember That,” featured the research of Steven J. FrendaEric D. KnowlesWilliam Saletanand Elizabeth Loftus. If you enjoyed that, you may want to check out Loftus’s recent TED talk about her research on embedding false memories in U.S. soldiers.  It focused on soldiers who had recently gone through “Survival School” training, during which they are “captured,” sent to a mock prisoner of war camp, and aggressively interrogated:

Psychiatrist Charles Morgan and his collaborators have been studying the effects of Survival School for a number of years. We worked together to conduct a study with the soldiers who’d gone through the training in which some would be fed erroneous information. Some have been exposed to misinformation about the “perpetrator” who conducted the hostile interview. They were showed a photograph of a man who was identified as the one conducting the interrogation, and were asked questions such as, “Did your interrogator give you anything to eat? Did he give you a blanket?” The trick was that the photograph was of a completely different person. When the soldiers were fed this misinformation, 84% of them later on went ahead and identified the person whose photograph was shown. All of them were, of course, mistaken.

The soldiers’ memories for other details could also be affected by misinformation. For example, some of them were fed misinformation about a weapon that was supposedly present during the interrogation. Later on, 27% claimed to have seen the nonexistent weapon. Others were fed misinformation about a telephone that was in the interrogation room. Later on, over 90% of them claimed to have seen that non-existent telephone.

As Loftus points out, this research demonstrates that people misremember even highly stressful events, despite the popular belief that “when something traumatic happens, it leaves a kind of imprint on the mind.”