Misattribution effect is when a memory is distorted because of the source, context, or our imagination. We may not recall the proper source of the memory but we can recall the memory, so a false memory is created to explain the source. If the misattribution effect is due to context we may overlap memories or conjoin them because the memories separately are incomplete. Our imagination can also cause misattributions, because by simply imagining ourselves doing something we become more convinced that it actually happened. Misattribution occurs when a true aspect of a memory is altered and becomes false.
An article by William James discusses how our memories can get distorted and invented. In the article it talks about the story of a psychologist, named Donald M. Thomson, who was convicted of being a rapist when in reality at the time of the rape he was on a television show to discuss the psychology of eyewitness testimony. What had happened was the victim had been watching Thomson’s television broadcast just before being attacked so his face was confused with the attackers.
Donald Thomson’s charges were dropped but some have not been so lucky. 40 different United States miscarriages of justice have relied on eye-witness testimony and many of these falsely convicted people serve many years in prison or even face the death penalty. When a memory is “misattributed” some original true aspect of a memory becomes distorted through time, space or circumstances.
When misattributions are not so disastrous they occur in our everyday lives. An example would be someone saying that they read something in the newspaper, when in reality a friend told them about it. Memories sometimes blend together so faces and circumstances get merged.
Another form of misattribution is unintentional plagiarism which is when we attribute an idea or memory to ourselves that really belongs to someone else. Memories often have some basis in reality, whether we’ve mixed up some details or even the memory’s source but sometimes they are just completely false and we make them up.
Misattributions can be disturbing to us because the sense of who we are comes from our experiences and what we remember. Misattributions can be sometimes useful to us though. The ability to extract, abstract and generalize our experiences enables us to apply lessons we’ve learnt in one domain to another.
Some studies have been created to show proof of misattribution. For example, in the classic study conducted by James Deese at Johns Hopkins University, participants are given lists of semantically related words like red, green, brown and blue. Later they have to try and recall them, at which point they often recall related words that were not actually presented, like purple or black. This is an example of False Memory misattribution. Another example is a study where participants were asked either to imagine performing an action or actually asked to perform it, like breaking a toothpick. Sometime later they went through the same process again. Then, later still they were asked whether they had performed that action or just imagined it. Those who imagined the actions more frequently the second time were more likely to think they’d actually performed the actions the first time.
Misattribution is usually harmless but in the case that something like what happened to Donald Thomson; that is scary. The fact that some people can get the death sentence for being accused of something that someone accidently misremembered or imagined is really serious. I think in instances like this when police ask victims to identify their suspects in a lineup they should present them individually instead of all together because that just increases the chances of misattribution happening.