False memories: Do you remember when......?

The study of human behavior

Often the human memory is seen as something that is similar to a video tape where once something is recorded it cannot be altered, changed or tampered with. Even when someone is 100 percent sure that a situation or an event took place in a particular way they can still be wrong despite their certainty, in reality the human memory is susceptible to change and manipulation regardless of how solid and reliable you think it is. The human memory can be generally be shaped and changed by a variety of factors causing inaccuracies and alterations when recalling events, of course how malleable someone's memory is depends on the individual person.

Ways memory can be altered.

The misinformation effect
As we know the memory is prone to errors and alterations. This susceptibility is enhanced by the misinformation effect which is where misleading information is incorporated ones memory prior to an event taking place. This can be caused by the use of leading questions ('how bright was the red Ferrari?'' as opposed to ''what colour was the Ferrari?'') where when used the person being asked will change their perception of an event to fit the question. 

American cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Lotus, one of the most notable researchers on false memory psychology and misinformation conducted a psychological experiment in 1974 where she had a group of participants watch a video of a car accident and then were questioned after about what they had just seen. When asked ''How fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other? the answers in regards to the rate of speed were generally higher than ''How fast were the cars were going when they bumped into each other?''. The specific wording used in the questions asked affected how the participants perceived the crash thus changing how they recalled events when asked. Also the length of time affects their perception of the situation as when the participants who were asked a week later were asked if there was glass in the scene of the accident, those who heard the word smash in the interview were more likely to say they saw glass in the video even if there was none.  


Junior Prom Effect
Emotions are known to have an effect on memory by intensifying them and giving them significance, they seem to act as a kind of bookmark so that upon recollection it evokes a strong response attached to it making it difficult to forget. Specifically negative emotions can create very intense and distinctive memories, not only this but they can highly distort your memories relative to neutral memories, according to Professor Charles Brainerd who studied the psychology of negative emotions and their effect on memory '' You may not remember what happened to you, but boy, do you remember it was negative. And that allows you to fill in the blanks with 'memories' that didn't really happen''.

Brainerd and his wife Valerie Reyna conducted research where 120 participants (60 in Brazil, 60 in the United States) were asked to read a list of words that had either positive, neutral and negative connotations and after to recall the words which were listed. When recalling the negative words from the list they previously read  they were more likely to falsely remember words which were not on the list while when it came to remembering the positive words on the list their memory was more accurate. Brainerd prior to the experiment stated. ''Historically the belief has been that negative events are easy to remember, that negative emotion creates very distinct memories. What we found was the opposite, negative information really distorts your memory.

Brainerd called this phenomenon the Junior Prom Effect because many people found this high school experience negative but intense.

Lost in the Mall Technique
Another way memories can be fabricated is through suggestion and storytelling where someone tells you a story or a situation which has supposedly happened in a way you can relate to and incorporate into your memory.

The study of human behaviorAmerican Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and her psychology student Jacqueline Pickrell conducted an experiment involving 24 participants who were told 4 different stories of when they were 5-6 years old, one of the four stories told was made up. Prior to the experiment the researchers spoke to each of the participants relatives to get three events which really happened when they were 5-6 years old. Then each family member was asked to provide a fourth story that was made up but was plausible, and it had to involve getting lost in the mall and being rescued by an elderly adult, this was to be used as the false memory. In the study nearly 25 percent of the participants recalled the false events and also providing details even though they never happened. In other studies related to this one performed by other researchers the lost in the mall technique has been used to create false memories such as, being hospitalized over night, taking a hot air balloon and being victim of an aggressive animal attack.

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  1. This phenomena helped explain why, philosophically, memory and identity can't be exclusively linked. It's extremely difficult (if not impossible) to keep one's memory pure. I've also done research into this phenomena and I've found that manipulating the mind is incredibly simple. And what's incredible is that the manipulation doesn't even need to be overt, as you were describing. The fact that the mind then compensates for the falsehoods and alters the events to fit the story instead of vice versa is truly remarkable. Nice post.

    Peter Licari