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False Memories

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False Memories

Nadia Memari, Editor

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For some, this might sound disappointing – and for others, maybe even reassuring: your memory isn’t as good as you think it is.

Take a look at the image above – which version of the famous character Pikachu do you remember to be correct?

Many people are certain the first image is the right one, but in reality, the second one has always been correct. This is an example of a collective false memory, or alternatively, the Mandela effect.

 

What is a false memory?

Perhaps easily definable by its name, a false memory is a fabricated or distorted perception of an event. Many people like to think of memory like a camera, accurately documenting and storing videos that can be easily played back with consistency and clarity. But our memories are constructive. Decades of research in psychology have proved that this potentially harmful belief was in fact incorrect.

The Mandela effect is a minor illustration of a false memory, though the extremity of false memories has a broad range. There are much more significant memories that can lead to damaging outcomes, too. In one project, information had been gathered on 300 innocent people convicted of crimes they never committed; they spent years or even decades in prison to have DNA testing finally prove their innocence. And when those cases were analyzed, researchers discovered the main reason they were convicted was due to false memories of the witnesses.

False memories can impact your own life, too, possibly affecting your later thoughts and behaviors. When individuals falsely remembered getting sick after eating certain foods, they began to avoid them and didn’t want to eat them as much. If one had a warm and fuzzy false memory about asparagus, he’d want to eat asparagus more. False memories can have repercussions long after the incorrectly remembered event occurred.

 

How and why are they formed?

An innocent 35 year old man, Steve Titus, was driving home from a romantic dinner with his fiancee when he was pulled over by the police, in search of a sexual offender. Titus’s car resembled the car of the real offender, and Titus resembled that man. So they took his photo, put it in a line-up, and later showed it to the victim. She pointed to his photo and claimed it was the closest match to the criminal, although she was not completely sure. The police proceeded with a trial, and when Steve was put on trial, the victim went on stand and declared she was sure he was the offender. Titus was later convicted, only to be released soon after, when the offender confessed. Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus dedicated her time to find the reason why the young woman went from “that was the closest” to “I’m absolutely positive that was the one!” – and the results of all the research were incredibly shocking. She discovered that if anything, our memories are more like a Wikipedia page than a camera – they’re altered on a daily basis. You can go in and change it, but so can everyone else. And the things people add can be ridiculous.

When you feed people misinformation about experiences they may have had, it can easily contaminate or distort their memory (and sadly, misinformation is everywhere). A group of students were shown a video of a car crash and were then directed to estimate how fast the cars were driving when they collided. More students overestimated the speed when the question asked was “how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” instead of “how fast were they going when they collided?” Individuals falsely remembered shattered glass surrounding the scene more when the first question was asked, too. The subtle change in the phrasing of the question had effects on the participants’ abilities to recall.

Another experiment was conducted in the 1990’s when patients of therapists started coming in with one problem and coming out with another. Extreme memories of horrific brutalizations, sometimes in satanic rituals or with extremely bizarre and unusual elements, were recalled by the patients after undergoing therapy. One woman left psychotherapy believing she endured years of ritualistic abuse, where she was forced into pregnancy and the baby was cut from her stomach. There were no physical scars, or any supporting evidence. Elizabeth Loftus looked further into this issue in an attempt to discover where these memories came from – whether it could have been the imagination exercises, dream interpretation, hypnosis, or in some cases exposure to false information.

In the experiment she designed, psychoanalysts used suggestion and were able to convince 25% of patients that they underwent the stressful experience of being lost in a shopping mall as a child, then were rescued by a kind elderly woman – sure, this might not sound that ridiculous or traumatic, but it gets worse. They also managed to convince patients that they witnessed demonic possession in Italy, almost drowned when they were kids then were rescued by a lifeguard (50% success rate), and even that they were attacked and nearly brutally killed by a wild animal (50% success rate)! To summarize, our memories are easily affected by other people and the misinformation they spread.

We’re affected by our previous memories. Old memories can interfere or alter our new memories, and sometimes, new information can make it difficult to remember previous information. Frequently, there are gaps in our memory, which we then attempt to fill, often using current knowledge as well as beliefs or expectations. Obviously, this isn’t guaranteed to result in an accurate recollection.

 

Can you prevent them?

In many cases, yes, you can prevent them – in yourself and others! As your memory can easily be manipulated by the people around you, false memories in an eyewitness can be prevented by trying to be the least suggestive as possible. Asking somebody closed or leading questions such as, “what was the perpetrators hair color?” or even worse, “he was a redhead, wasn’t he?” may not do you any good. Instead, try letting the person tell the story at his own accord, without any interruptions or following questions. At most, you might want to ask the person if he could provide more information on something he mentioned, but it is crucial to be sure that you keep those questions open and general – like “could you tell me more about that?” This is useful to probe memories from any individual, and not just eyewitnesses! Witnesses can acquire misinformation from other witnesses, too, and the media is also a wonderful source of false memory influence. If you want to preserve your memories for the future, scrapbooking, creating memory boxes and keeping a diary can all be useful hobbies. This way, you can be sure that the hot dog eating contest you won in second grade was real, or the supernatural experience you had with your great, great grandmother.

So, in short – Be careful what you believe, and be careful what you say! Just because somebody tells you something, and they say it with confidence, or because they say it with lots of detail, or express emotion when they say it, doesn’t mean that it really happened.

 

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