Half of the participants in a study published in the journal Memory were induced to “remember” events that never happened. This is known as a false memory, which is something that did not happen even though a person may clearly remember it.
The Suggestibility of Human Memory
The study—which was performed by researchers from the University of Warwick—analyzed eight previous studies of false memories. The studies used a variety of techniques to convince participants that a false event occurred. For example, researchers might tell participants about a false event, then ask them to imagine it occurring. Rehearsing memories causes them to be encoded into long-term memory.
About half of participants accepted, to at least some degree, the occurrence of the false memory. In some cases, participants even elaborated on events that never happened. This elaboration took place even in the absence of photos and other support or evidence for the false memories. Overall, 30% of participants completely accepted the false autobiographical information. An additional 23% accepted the information to some extent.
False Memories and Mental Health
Researchers have long known memories can be unreliable. So-called “recovered” memories can be especially challenging for mental health practitioners and people in therapy. Mental health professionals should note that memory is suggestible, and the wrong therapeutic techniques can inadvertently plant false memories. It is often impossible to determine whether a recovered memory is real or implanted. According to the American Psychological Association, it is unclear whether “lost” memories can ever be recovered.
- Arkowitz, H., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2010, January 1). Why science tells us not to rely on eyewitness accounts. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-the-eyes-have-it/
- Half of people believe fake facts. (2016, December 7). Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-12/uow-hop120716.php
- Memories of childhood abuse. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/memories.aspx
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