• False Memory’s Fantastic Four

    This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.


    False Memory’s Fantastic Four by Dustin Belden

    Next time you tell a story to someone, don’t be upset if they don’t believe you, because what you may not know, is that occasionally you can’t even believe your own memories!  Yes, that’s correct, even your own memories can deceive you.  The concept of false memories is well supported in scientific research.  People generally think of their memories as something like an accurate recording that documents and stores everything that happens with perfect accuracy.  In reality, human memory is very prone to inaccuracies.

    Elizabeth Loftus

    There are four categories that are related to false memories.  They are false memory syndrome, source-monitoring error, misinformation effect, and confabulation. False memory syndrome is a condition in which a person’s relationships and identity are affected by memories which are strongly believed but factually incorrect. False memory syndrome is often seen in which one remembers traumatic events that haven’t actually occurred, often seen in child abuse cases.  Peter J. Freyd originated the term, which the False Memory Syndrome Foundation subsequently popularized. False memories may be the result of recovered memory therapy, a term also defined by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in the early 1990s, which describes a range of therapy methods that are prone to creating confabulations. Some of the influential figures in the development of the theory are psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, forensic psychologist Ralph Underwager, and sociologist Richard Ofshe. False memory syndrome is not recognized as an official mental health diagnosis, but the principle that memories can be altered by outside influences is overwhelmingly accepted by scientists.

    source monitoring error is a type of memory error where a specific past experience is incorrectly determined to be the source of a memory. This error occurs when normal perceptual and self-reflective processes are disrupted, either by deficient encoding of original information or by disruption to the judgment processes used in source-monitoring. High stress levels, depression, and damage to relevant brain areas are examples of factors that can cause such disruption and hence source-monitoring errors.  Schizophrenic patients often show signs of source monitoring errors, by attributing memories to a new external source.  Source monitoring errors are also sometimes shown in people with lower IQ’s.

    The misinformation effect refers to the finding that exposure to misleading information presented between subsequent recall of information and its encoding causes impairment in memory.  This effect occurs when participants’ recall of an event they witnessed is altered by introducing misleading post-relevant information.  It is a prime example of retroactive interference, which occurs when information presented later interferes with the ability to retain previously encoded information.  The new information that a person receives works backward in time to distort memory of the original event.  The misinformation effect has been studied for over 30 years. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has been influential on the study of misleading information in terms of both visual imagery and wording of questions in relation to eyewitness testimony.  Loftus’ findings seem to indicate that memory for an event that has been witnessed is highly flexible.  If someone is exposed to new information during the interval between witnessing the event and recalling it, this new information may have marked effects on what they recall.  The original memory can be modified, changed or supplemented.  The misinformation effect reflects two aspect of false memory: suggestibility, the influence of others’ expectations on our memory; and misattribution, information attributed to an incorrect source. Research on the misinformation effect has uncovered concerns about the permanence and reliability of memory.

    Photo from Loftus’ study

    In Loftus’s prime study, participants were shown slides of a car accident involving various cars and were asked to describe what had happened as if they were eyewitnesses.  The participants were then asked how fast the cars were going, and were given different leading suggestions concerning the accident (the cars smashed, bumped, collided, and contacted.  The leading verbs directly coincided with how the participants answered the next question.  Loftus asked the question of whether the participants saw any broken glass at the accident.  The participants who were asked the “smashed” question thought the cars were going faster than those who were asked the “hit” question. The participants in the “smashed” condition reported the highest speeds, followed by “collided”, “bumped”, “hit”, and “contacted”.  People in the “smashed” group were more likely to report that they saw broken glass.  Loftus’s findings showed that leading the witness with certain verbs can affect their memory of the events.

    In psychology, confabulation is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.  Confabulation is distinguished from lying as there is no intent to deceive and the person is unaware the information is false.   Although individuals can present blatantly false information, confabulation can also seem to be coherent, internally consistent, and relatively normal.  Individuals who confabulate present incorrect memories ranging from subtle alternations to bizarre fabrications, and are generally very confident about their recollections, despite contradictory evidence. Most known causes of confabulation are caused by brain damage or dementias, such as alcoholismaneurysm or Alzheimer’s disease.

    Two distinct types of confabulation are often distinguished: spontaneous and provoked.  Spontaneous, or primary, confabulations do not occur in response to a cue and seem to be involuntary.  Spontaneous confabulation is relatively rare, may result from the interaction between frontal lobe pathology and organic amnesia, and is more common in cases of dementia.  Provoked, momentary, or secondary confabulation represents a normal response to a faulty memory and is common in both amnesia and dementia. Provoked confabulations can become apparent during memory tests.  Another distinction found in confabulations is that between verbal and behavioral. Verbal confabulations are spoken false memories and are more common, while behavioral confabulations occur when an individual acts on their false memories.  Confabulated memories of all types most often occur in autobiographical memory, and are indicative of a complicated and intricate process that can be led astray at any point during encodingstorage, or recall of a memory.  This type of confabulation is commonly seen in Korsakoff’s syndrome.

    An additional study, conducted by Brewer and Treyens (1981), suggested that people reconstruct memories with what they expect.  Student participants were asked to wait in an office for 35 seconds and then taken into another room where they conducted a memory recall task.  Participants generally recalled the items that they expected to be in an office (typewriters).  Participants who made errors substituted items that they expected to be in an office setting (i.e.: telephones when there was none).  They were less successful at recalling items that didn’t’ belong in the office setting (brick).  However, they were able to recall the bizarre items (skull).  Other errors involved the placement of items.  For example, the notepad was recalled on the desk, where it would usually be, though it was on the chair.

    The four major sources of memory error are literally the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why humans remember things wrongly. So, next time you seem certain of what you remember…you might just want to make sure.

    Category: PoliticsPsychologySkepticismTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com