False Memory and How It Affects Us


We all have a tendency to trust our memory, and even other people’s memories should we have reason to believe them (whether it be from that person be considered trustworthy, they seem confident in their own memory, or among other possible factors). However, studies have shown that time and time again we actually consistently fail with our memories. Besides considering how heuristics and schemas broadly affect our ability to correctly remember information or process a situation, research has found startlingly large evidence to point towards the fact that even specific memories can be misremembered, if not outright fabricated.

To begin with, one needs to look at two major components that supplement false memories. First, the tendency to have a familiarity bias such as with the illusion of truth, and second with the issues that are accompanied by semantic priming. With the familiarity bias, information that one has previously processed is more likely to be believed as the truth, even if it is revealed that the information is completely false. Once again referring somewhat back to heuristics, we live in a world where information is spread at the drop of a hat. Any information that is “known” about a specific incident is reported about as soon as its heard, and its reported on constantly by friends, family, neighbors, media, you name it. When semantic priming is thrown in, where a simple change of words can largely affect how an incident is remembered, it becomes increasingly alarming how steadily yet drastically our memories can be altered. As some of Loftus’ experiments show, changing words such as “collided” to “smashed” in regards to a car accident can change how severe the accident was viewed. With suggestion from the person asking questions about the incidents, the studies show that signs such as yield signs and stop signs can be misremembered.

When discussing this, it is important to point out that most of the issues themselves arise from suggestion being posed towards a recollection rather than a recall. Studies on mugshots and suspect line-ups in particular have shown us that there is a strong false memory effect shown with familiarity in such identification trials, where someone will point out the “criminal” from the lineup even if they were nowhere near the crime simply because it is a face that they remember seeing previously, even if they cannot remember from where. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4183265/

More of Loftus’ experiments have shown us that if the concept for the memory is somewhat vague or common (such as getting lost in a store/mall, or getting sick from food as a young child) that entirely false memories can be planted where none existed previously, with some people even being led to believe more dramatic memories such as almost drowning as a child. Some steps are being taken to improve the justice system in regards to semantic priming and familiarity bias, however the steps being taken are unfortunately small and slow to take root.

So far studies to prove which memories are true and which memories are false have been largely inconclusive. Some factors such as response time or emotional reaction have been weakly attached to memory validity, but even these can be manipulated to the point of untrustworthiness. Ultimately, not much can be done to change how false memories may take hold in someone from a non-legal standpoint, but hopefully the criminal justice system will soon change to take strides to match true criminal identification to the research about false memory that has been built up over the years

1 thought on “False Memory and How It Affects Us

  1. nboigegrain

    As a psychology major with an interest in the legal process (enough so that I almost became a cop), false memories are a huge interest of mine. I myself know of a few that I have. For example, I can clearly remember getting lost at a mall, however, I have never gotten lost, and it was in fact my sister who had that experience. I think the reason for this false memory is because I grew up hearing how my sister got lost and always being told that if I run off in the mall (which I often did) I would get lost. I think after hearing the lost in the mall story so many times as a child, I mistook it for my own memory. This definitely rises the issue of what happens if someone has a false memory and is someone who is going through the trial process, either as the possible criminal or a witness. Do we then not trust any witness accounts and disregard them, considering most memories aren’t false? Do we trust all of them? Or do we develop some type of a way to determine who is right and who is wrong. I would love to see what false memories are tied to, especially strongly tied to, along with weak ties (like response time and emotional reaction, as you said).

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