Tag Archives: False Memory

Impacts of Technology: Digital Amnesia

Everyone uses technology in one form or another, from sending an email to a professor to posting on this blog. Although we enjoy the benefits and many uses of technology daily, we often don’t realize how technology can negatively impact the brain, memory, or our thought processes. I found this study particularly interesting in light of all the recent controversy surrounding “false” memories.

An article from the TechTimes, entitled, “Don’t Lie on Facebook, Other Social Networks. It causes ‘Digital Amnesia’” describes a phenomenon where an individual lies about personal details of their lives on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter but then end up essentially rewriting their own memories. This phenomenon which psychologists are calling “digital amnesia” is a result of anxiety, shame, or paranoia that some people feel about keeping up their social media image. This can cause memories that are stored to be less accurate and more conforming to a certain image. Alarmingly, the article notes that 68% of people said they “regularly lie, exaggerate, or embellish” when posting on social media with 1 in 10 people saying that the original memory of the event has known become skewed when trying to retrieve it. Unsurprisingly, the 18-24 age bracket is the group most affected by this phenomenon with 16% reporting “completely compromised memories.”

There has been only one study, “The effect of Twitter exposure on false memory information” that specifically looked at the effects of Twitter on autobiographical memory published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review in May 2014. However, this study was focused on whether or not Twitter could alter a person’s perception about real news events they saw while scrolling on their feed. The experiment was carried out where they showed “participants pictures that depicted a news story. Then they were shown false information about the images in a feed that either highly resembled a Twitter feed or one that did not at all. The confidence for correct information was similar across groups but confidence for suggested information was significantly lower when false information was presented in a Twitter format.” The results depicted that it is likely people will have trouble determining whether or not information is accurate on social media and incorrectly remembering what was accurate and what was not. They repeated this experiment using Facebook as well as information read from a book. Twitter prompted higher false memory rates than Facebook and information from a book.

I personally found this fascinating as this is something I see a lot on social media. Some people definitely have a tendency to recall or talk about things they’ve seen on social media without being sure the information is accurate and I find that scary. I personally take things I see on social media sites like Facebook at face-value until I can check another source. In an age where people enjoy sharing every little detail of their lives on social media, it may be a good idea to hold back and share only essential details to prevent “digital” amnesia.

False Memory

The criminal justice system relies on eyewitness testimonies and that is something that is considered to be a concrete piece of evidence during a trial and has been known to help put people in jail, but what if what the witnesses are remembering is not actually what happened.

According to Roediger, a false memory is when you “remember events that never actually happened, or remembering them quite different than the way they actually happened.” This subject has caught the attention of many psychologists because these things have a large effect on our everyday lives and can even effect the lives of others. 

In Roediger’s study, Creating False Memories: Remembering Words Not Presented In Lists (1995), he looked at this topic of false memory and he tested it by using a word recognition task. He compiled lists of a lot of words and after the subject had a chance to look at them then he would ask them to see if any of the next set of words were in the previous list. The first list he produced would have a bunch of words related around a similar concept, such as sofa or sweet, then he would place words similar to that concept in the second set of lists. The participants were very confident with the words they picked and that they were in the first list.

What creates a false memory then. How do we think that something happened to us but it really didn’t, or it didn’t happen they way we thought it did. Another researcher that has been studying this field of psychology is Elizabeth Loftus, and she has been studying the creation of false memory through the power of suggestion and that after time passes, the memory that they created gets stronger and more vivid. Our memories naturally begin to change as time goes on as well as we incorporate new information about the words and have new experiences.

In the case of the criminal justice system, people are sent to jail based on eyewitness testimony, and annually too many people are found out to have been misidentified as the culprit after physical evidence turns up, however, the eyewitnesses are convinced that they have identified the right people.

Texas was the first state to pass legislation to try and stop this problem of faulty convictions. They are having the police department use techniques that have been proven to have better results and that researchers have developed to be a better way.

False memory happens to everybody and most of the time it is harmless and doesn’t effect anybody, however, it can also have serious consequences and can change somebody’s life. If you hear a story over and over again, it can eventually make its way into your brain and you can think that it happened to you. Of if you see faces in a photo array in a police station and all of the faces have similar features then you have a higher probability of picking the wrong one. More scientists have been focusing on this are of psychology and hopefully there will be ways in which we are able to limit the amount of wrongful convictions by using better techniques.

Brian Williams possible case of misremembering.


While covering a story on the Iraq War in 2003, NBC news anchor Brian Williams was a passenger in a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. His story has since changed. Recently, after being questioned on the validity of his story reporters found out that it didn’t really happen – that he was in a following aircraft not impacted by the grenade. Many think that he purposefully twisted the story and lied to his viewers. This however, may not be the case if looked at from a psychologist’s perspective. In many past cases, people have misremembered events big and small. This article by the New York Times http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/09/was-brian-williams-a-victim-of-false-memory/?ref=health&_r=0 uses psychological research to counteract the argument at hand. According to this article, Mr.Williams may have actually misremembered this traumatic event.

The phenomena of misremembering happens to millions of people on a regular basis, including famous figures such as Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney. It never occurred to me that this problem could be something so controversial because it seems like a natural part of the brain’s processing. The brain performs so many tasks at any given moment that it’s nearly impossible to remember every event and detail correctly. I often find myself recalling childhood memories one way when they may have unfolded another.

These false memories, according to Harvard Psychologist Daniel Schacter, happen because our brains mean to tell stories about the future. “If memory is set up to use the past to imagine the future, its flexibility creates a vulnerability — a risk of confusing imagination with reality.” This may be an explanation for Brian William’s case because he imagined the rocket-propelled grenade striking the helicopter which would in turn justify the flexibility proposal. It did indeed create vulnerability mostly because according to Taylor Beck, author of Making Sense of Memory http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/08/making-sense-of-memory/, emotions are the basis of memories. This situation created intense emotional arousal which would have made it simple for Williams to think the rocket struck his helicopter directly.

The part of the brain responsible for these emotional attachments to events is the hippocampus. Beck describes it as a “simulator”, creating movies in the mind of memories, drawing from a memory store to build new episodes. However, the brain does not store memories in just one part – it stores them in scattered fragments, which is why it is so difficult to gather all of the correct information for every memory. After several iterations of memory retrieval, the brain may mistake the original memory with newer memories from factors in the environment such as media. This may lead to the storage of false memories that can be told time and time again as if they happened in real life. The biggest issue here is that the individual thinks these memories are true. This is yet another explanation as to why Brian Williams’ false memory account for him supposedly twisting his story to mislead his viewers.

Although I am in no way certain what truly happened in Brian Williams’ case, countless sources support the fact that this may have been an instance of misremembering by the brain that happened subconsciously.