• 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

    2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

    • Chad Lee

      The false memory syndrome is interesting. I was not aware that there were these categories of memories. Given that I come from a background similar to the above regarding false memory syndrome, I wonder how accurate my memories really are. Interesting. I’d be curious to learn more about this category.

      • I think Dustin will be writing another post on this topic, so stay tuned!

    • Evelyn Stratmoen

      Loftus’ prime study is an excellent example of suggestibility and how it plays tricks on our memory. Knowing that we are primed constantly with every day interactions, it would almost seem that most of our memory is inaccurate, even though we insist that our memories are completely true and accurate.

    • intuitiveacuity

      I hate the effects of memory distortion on the ability to veridically recall events, especially when one conflates two events due to poor source attribution. If only we could recall information without there being some sort of reconstructive process, but alas, there is nothing that can be done. Conflation is particularly embarrassing, especially when one switches the roles in a story that is being told, and honestly cannot remember that it wasn’t them.

    • RankingEffects

      Given what we know about the flaws inherent to human memory, it’s striking that our judicial system still allows eyewitness testimony to be taken into consideration. People can essentially lie without realizing that they’re doing so (assuming that their intention is not to provide false testimony in the first place). If expectancies help to shape memories (the keyword here being “shape”), a courtroom is the last place we should believe someone’s recollection of an event.

      • Thomas Taylor

        There have been studies about the opposite end of legal evidence that is just as
        disturbing. The CSI effect is about people weighing physical evidence too much.
        In some cases they want to see physical evidence that would be impossible or financially improbable to obtain for a conviction. Jurors set their baseline off TV shows that often fabricate abilities and evidence types on an as needed basis. I think
        there should be a middle ground somewhere that everyone can agree on.

      • IvyBrown

        This can be a problem for more than eyewitness testimony. People will falsely confess to crimes and “remember” details, which often times have been suggested by those interrogating the suspect. Also, if a person believes what they are recalling is true tools such as a lie detector will provide no useful information. Deception cannot be detected if the person truly believes they are telling the truth.

        • Smenotti

          That, and it cannot be detected if the person really does not care whether they are telling the truth or not and their physiological responses remain even all the way through.

    • narges30

      Recently, I had a homework about this subject, which caused me to find and read different articles. I have learned that even I should not trust my own eyes and memories. Since then if I hear or see something I put some percentages for my false memory to not believe as 100%.

    • Bethany Barnett

      It was interesting to read about false memory. The concept of behavioral confabulations is interesting to me. Can you give me an example of that?

    • pdavis13

      All of this is very interesting to me. What’s fascinating is that we can go to tell someone a story and as we’re getting into detail about it, the person can stop us and say, “wait, that’s not about you, I told you that story, it was about me” and you could have no idea why you started telling that story as if it had really happened to you. The fact that our brains can interpret a story, store it in memory, recall it, then regurgitate it as if it’d actually happened to ourselves, rather than the actual person it happened to is just insane. My question would be, depending on the situation, do our brains do this because maybe we really wish that certain situation was about us so we start to manifest that as our own and then it just becomes this false memory?

    • Ryan Danger McCall

      Very good article. The mind can play many tricks on us! This is always the case when dealing with eyewitnesses of crimes. Many people can all witness the same event but each remember a different version of the event. It is very interesting to understand how asking the question can promote certain types of memory recall. Such as “Were the cars smashed? Or did they hit each other?”

    • jaymacg

      In my opinion, memory is one of the most interesting areas of psychology. It is also one of the most frustrating, since we know that we do in fact have memories that we strongly believe are true although they are simply not, we just don’t know which memories fall into that category.

    • StephanieMenotti

      I have to say, “confabulation” is a fabulous word to add to my vocabulary! I recently read about a study where researchers collaborated with the family members of a participant to get baby photos, and then they used the photos to photoshop the person riding in a hot air balloon when they were a child. When shown these pictures as adults, the participants fabricated extremely elaborate stories (not intentionally) to match the photoshopped pictures. What I find even more interesting, is the fact that these individuals truly believed that they had been on a hot air balloon ride as a child, even after they were told they had never been on one. We have the ability to make up a story in our mind, and believe it so much that even when we are told it isn’t true, and even when we are faced with all the evidence in the world to show us it isnt true, we still want to believe it. Humans.

    • shanshan1314

      The most interesting thing that i learned this semester is never trust our brain. it is interesting because we always trust our brain, we always trust what we are thinking, believing what we see what we hear and what we want to believe even though evidence show a different thing, we still insist what we are thinking. People are living in a world that full of lies, it is true. It is better for us to recognize what is right and what is wrong, it is better to critique than just believing. There are no accurate memory, all the memories are revised by ourselves, so that is why on the court, missleading questions really could work, that is why there are good lawyers and bad lawyers, it is not credible to believe people’s memory, and actually i think it is easy to be manipulate.

    • vivianjingjing

      How to distingish memory of dream from the reality ? Like a movie “Inception”, it is possible that we can translate one’s memory to other person’s brain.Somethings we believed is actually what we want to believe, not the reality.

    • Adam Braly

      I like this is great evidence for the notion that our memories are largely reconstructive! Personally, I have a terrible memory when it comes to most things, so naturally I never really claim to remember much. On the off chance that I do remember something, I’m always intrigued as to whether I’m drawing from an attentional resource, or if the neurons in my brain are firing in roughly the same pattern. Either way, there must be a mechanism that contains neural blueprints, or suggests certain pattern of neural activity is related to specific events.

    • JazzySmall

      It was interesting to see the distinction between confabulation and lying. If the difference between confabulation and lying is the intent to deceive, is it possible that confabulation can be tested like malingering is tested? A test for malingering involves finding an intent to deceive, such as when those that commit crimes attempt to pose as mentally ill. If an attempt to deceive can be found, then one could find the difference between a confabulation and a blatant lie.

    • dandymandyl

      It is things like this that make me realize that there is a good deal that we may think we remember that we really dont. I think we have all had an instance where we shared a story about our childhood around family only to find out that what we thought had happened isn’t what happened at all…

    • tinafriar

      This was a well written and thought out article. I had a vague knowledge of the topic, but I learned something today, so thank you for that. I’ve always had an idea this was a “thing” – when two people were at the same place at the same time and have two totally different accounts of the same situation, obviously there is a problem with the mind keeping ones memories straight. Also, good distinction between confabulation and lying.

    • fghani

      Cool article! I have often mixed my own memories up and end up trusting them blindly.

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