Study: Half of People ‘Remember’ Events That Never Occurred

Vintage camera and photographsHalf 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.

These findings suggest many people may believe in events that never occurred. The authors say unreliable memories can have far-reaching social, political, and legal implications. For example, if memories are easy to implant, misinformation in media could create incorrect collective memories that affect people’s attitude or behavior. Previous research points to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, which can often be inaccurate due to the highly suggestible nature of human memory.

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.

References:

  1. 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/
  2. Half of people believe fake facts. (2016, December 7). Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-12/uow-hop120716.php
  3. Memories of childhood abuse. (n.d.). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/memories.aspx

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  • 3 comments
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  • Janna

    Janna

    December 21st, 2016 at 10:26 AM

    I am sort of surprised that we are mostly so open to the power of suggestions, allowing things that never even happened impact us in such a negative way

  • shelby

    shelby

    December 22nd, 2016 at 6:35 AM

    This overall makes us pretty unreliable huh?

  • Priscilla

    Priscilla

    December 24th, 2016 at 4:06 PM

    So think about how many criminal cases could have been adversely influenced because of things like that. Now that is a scary realization don’t you think?

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