Tag Archives: False Memory

Another Memory Post…I think?

I have constructed a deeper understanding of myself through direct experience and introspection on my physical, personality, and other characteristics. However, this self-concept is not guaranteed to reflect those of others. So, who are you? Are you the choices that you make? Your past experiences? The people you regularly associate with? Perhaps, more specifically, your collective memories? Memories are deeply personal and, when accurate, are reflective of the experiences and information you have gathered from the external world.

Memory, as we have discussed in class, is crucial for many aspects of learning and socialization. As we learn things from our external environment, information gets encoded and stored in our memory. We are then usually able to retrieve that information at a later time. However, being that our memory is reconstructive, recollections are not a carbon copy of what we perceive or experience. Sometimes, the process of retrieving memories is imperfect. False memories are extreme recollections of events that are either highly distorted or completely inaccurate. People with false memories are usually adamant about the accuracy of said memories. These are severe cases involving substantial errors in memory retrieval. What would cause such significant lapses?

Enter suggestibility, one of the seven sins of memory we covered in class today. Receiving new information after an event can alter one’s memory of what occurred. A study conducted in 1974 by Loftus and Palmer involved exposing participants to various videos of car collisions. After witnessing each individual collision, they were asked specific framing questions, including “About how fast were the cars going when they (smashed/collided/bumped/hit/contacted) each other?” As you might expect, the slight variance in wording to describe each collision resulted in participants reporting higher than average speeds on questions that used more extreme terminology such as “smashed” and “collided.” Merely altering the presentation of a statement, inflecting a particular tone, or including polarizing details in explanations, can affect how a recipient interprets and encodes that information into their own memory. More importantly, skewing one’s memory of information and events can lead to both the propagation of falsehoods and all-out psychological manipulation.

In the case of this study, suggestions made through subtle alterations in word choice led to significant changes in eyewitness testimony. The reason for this form of evidence losing its credibility in the court of law over the centuries is our growing understanding of memory. Memory is flexible, perhaps a little too much so. We as humans are naturally biased, notably, in that we tend to notice and exaggerate some experiences and minimize or overlook others to meet expected outcomes (the introspection illusion!). Broadly speaking, no matter the individual or circumstances, being convincing does not mean that one is truthful.

Consider this quote by Frank Herbert:

“Belief can be manipulated. Only knowledge is dangerous.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Now, consider the questions we introduced at the beginning of this post. If our perceptions of “self” are, in fact, built upon subjective experiences and resulting memories, it is essential to draw the line between beliefs and knowledge. When we are confident that we know something factually, we do not usually go back and try to verify it. Our beliefs, however, are continually being challenged; by ourselves, people around us, situations, and so forth. Our beliefs, even when flawed or manipulated, make us unique. They dictate our individual and social behaviors, determination of what is right and wrong, how we perceive ourselves and others, and so much more.

That was a lot. I will leave you with a video that I found to be super fascinating regarding the perception of self and the formation of memories. In this video, Michael Stevens, the (subjective) genius behind the Vsauce YouTube channel, subjects participants to a modified version of a false memory experiment conducted by Loftus & Pickrell (1995). The goal of this experiment was to determine whether “reminding” participants of details from partially-fabricated childhood experiences affected their recall of said memories. It also includes a demonstration of “choice blindness,” a phenomenon in which people incorrectly claim that they fully understand the roots of their thoughts and emotions. Despite this, they are blind to their own choices and preferences when forced to act on a task.

“If even the most basic parts of you, like your memories or your past, can be forgotten or manipulated, how can you know ever really know who “you” are?”

Sources/Further Reading:
1. Formation of false memories, Loftus and Pickrell (1995): https://webfiles.uci.edu/eloftus/Loftus_Pickrell_PA_95.pdf

2. Loftus and Palmer suggestibility study, “Reconstruction of automobile destruction” https://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html

3. Eyewitness testimony: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/uncategorized/myth-eyewitness-testimony-is-the-best-kind-of-evidence.html

4. False Memory post on a fellow cognitive psych blog: http://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2018/04/26/heres-a-suggestion-dont-trust-your-false-memory/#more-4141

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.