I’m a computer guy. So when I’ve thought of memory in the past, I’ve always explained it in those terms; working memory is sort of like RAM and Long term memory is like your hard-drive. This isn’t completely accurate of course, but it’s easier for those that do not understand memory to conceptualize. The problem with that analogy is that one cannot fully appreciate the complexity of memory, though I would suggest it is a bit more accurate than the filing cabinet analogy in that with a hard drive all the pieces of information are fragmented into bits and are spread out onto the disk. When you understand the complex nature of memory, you can then understand how it could create a false memory with just a mere suggestion.
There have been numerous studies that look at this. One of the biggest researcher in the area of false memories is Dr. Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Washington. She has done a number of different studies but one of her more famous is where she successfully implanted a false memory into participants about getting lost in a mall in which an elderly person found them and reunited them with their family. Out of the 24 individuals, 7 of them remembered this false event. She is often credited with starting this research. This suggests that when a person is fed a false memory by those whom they trust, in this case stories from their parents, they are susceptible to recalling things that simply never happened. Another experiment that Loftus conducted had participants view a car accident in which they were told to recall certain facts about what happened. Participants were asked one of two questions, either they were asked how fast the cars were going when they hit each other or they were asked how fast they were going when they smashed into each other. The “hit” group estimated the speed being 34 miles per hour while the “smashed” group estimated that the cars were going about 41 miles per hour. The participants would even then recall seeing things at the scene that did not exist such as glass all over the road (there wasn’t).This is referred to as the misinformation effect.
This all suggest how inaccurate our memories can be when we try to remember specific events and how easily we can succumb to the mere suggestion of another individual with a bit of authority (e.g. parents). After all, we didn’t evolve to remember every detail of an event. It’s not very important to remember the color of the eyes of the lion that’s chasing after you or how many stripes a zebra has. It’s important to remember that big cats can kill you and zebras are a good source of sustenance.
So then, what happens if we take this understanding and throw it into criminal investigations? I present to you, the case of Michael Crowe:
Let’s be clear, these detectives were not merely suggesting that he had committed the murder of his sister, they went in already having decided that this 14 year old was guilty and they were determined to make him confess. They obviously succeeded. This was a much higher stakes event than what Loftus had done with her participants; one could rightfully argue that this could have an impact on false memories. The article at the top of the page brings into the discussion an experiment that was conducted where participants were given a false story of them having committed a crime that led to police involvement. They modeled their experiment after Loftus’ work that was described above, in that they asked the parents to write about the participants past and then they threw in the false story. After a time, they were asked to remember events from their childhood and 70% of the participants (yes, 70%) remembered the false crime as if they had actually committed the crime. They didn’t just remember the event, they created elaborate stories about it.
This begs the question of how many innocent individuals have confessed to things that they have never done. In 2003, false confessions were the number one reason for wrongful convictions. Since 2000, there have been about 317 exonerations made by new DNA testing. About 30% of those (roughly 95 people) made false confessions and 18 of those were on death row.
Questioning suspects is a needed part of the criminal justice system. However, with what we have discussed, we can see how much we are susceptible to false memories. Those doing the questioning must be trained to do so in a way that reduces the risk of false confessions because they have real and severe consequences.
Elizabeth Loftus’ TEDtalk