False memory

This article is about psychology. For the novel by Dean Koontz, see False Memory (novel).

False memory is the psychological phenomenon in which a person recalls a memory that did not actually occur. False memory is often considered in legal cases regarding childhood sexual abuse.[1][2][3][4] This phenomenon was initially investigated by psychological pioneers Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud. Freud wrote The Aetiology of Hysteria, where he discussed repressed memories of childhood sexual trauma in their relation to hysteria.[5] Elizabeth Loftus has, since her debuting research project in 1974,[6] been a lead researcher in memory recovery and false memories. False memory syndrome recognizes false memory as a prevalent part of one's life in which it affects the person's mentality and day-to-day life. False memory syndrome differs from false memory in that the syndrome is heavily influential in the orientation of a person's life, while false memory can occur without this significant effect. The syndrome takes effect because the person believes the influential memory to be true.[7] However, its research is controversial and the syndrome is excluded from identification as a mental disorder and, therefore, is also excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. False memory is an important part of psychological research because of the ties it has to a large number of mental disorders, such as PTSD.[8]

Manipulation of memory recall through language

In 1974, Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer conducted a study to investigate the effects of language on the development of false memory. The experiment involved two separate studies.

In the first test, 45 participants were randomly assigned to watch different videos of a car accident, in which separate videos had shown collisions at 20 miles per hour, 30 miles per hour, and 40 miles per hour. Afterwards, participants filled out a survey. The survey asked the question, "About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" The question always asked the same thing, except the verb used to describe the collision varied. Rather than "smashed", other verbs used included "bumped", "collided", "hit", or "contacted". Participants estimated collisions of all speeds to average between 35 miles per hour to just below 40 miles per hour. If actual speed were the main factor in estimate, it could be assumed that participants would have lower estimates for lower speed collisions. Instead, the word being used to describe the collision seemed to better predict the estimate in speed rather than the speed itself.[6]

The second experiment also showed participants videos of a car accident, but the critical manipulation was the verbiage of the follow-up questionnaire. 150 participants were randomly assigned to three conditions. Those in the first condition were asked the same question as the first study using the verb "smashed". The second group was asked the same question as the first study, replacing "smashed" with "hit". The final group was not asked about the speed of the crashed cars. The researchers then asked the participants if they had seen any broken glass, knowing that there was no broken glass in the video. The responses to this question had shown that the difference between whether broken glass was recalled or not heavily depended on the verb used. A larger sum of participants in the "smashed" group declared that there was broken glass.

In this study, the first point brought up in discussion is that the words used to phrase a question can heavily influence the response given.[6] Second, the study indicates that the phrasing of a question can give expectations to previously ignored details, and therefore, a misconstruction of our memory recall. This indication supports false memory as an existing phenomenon.

Article adjustment on eyewitness report

Loftus' meta-analysis on language manipulation studies suggested the phenomenon effects taking hold on the recall process and products of the human memory. Even the smallest adjustment in a question, such as the article preceding the supposed memory, could alter the responses. For example, having asked someone if they'd seen "the" stop sign, rather than "a" stop sign, provided the respondent with a presupposition that there was a stop sign in the scene. This presupposition increased the number of people responding that they had indeed seen the stop sign.

Adjective implications on eyewitness report

Select adjectives can imply characteristics about an object. Including said adjectives in a prompt can alter participant responses. Harris' 1973 study looks at the differences in answers on the height of a basketball player. Respondents were randomly assigned to have either answered to, "How tall was the basketball player?" or "How short was the basketball player?" Rather than asking participants simply for the height of the basketball player, they used adjectives that had an implication for the numerical results. The difference in height averages that were predicted was 10 inches (250 mm). The adjective provided in a sentence can possibly cause a respondent's answer to be over-exaggerated or under-exaggerated.

Response to meta-analysis

It has been argued that Loftus and Palmer did not control for outside factors coming from individual participants, such as participants' emotions or alcohol intake, along with many other factors. Despite criticisms such as this, this particular study is extremely relevant to legal cases regarding false memory. The Loftus and Palmer automobile study allowed for the Devlin Committee to create the Devlin Report, which suggested that eyewitness testimony is not reliable standing on its own.

Reliability of memory recall


Presuppositions are an implication through chosen language. If a person is asked, "What shade of blue was the wallet?" The questioner is, in translation, saying, "The wallet was blue. What shade was it?" The question's phrasing provides the respondent with a supposed "fact". This presupposition provides two separate effects: true effect and false effect.

True effect says that the object implied to have existed does exist. With that, the respondent's recall is strengthened, more readily available, and easier to extrapolate from. In true effect, presuppositions make a detail more readily recalled. For example, it would be less likely that a respondent would remember a wallet was blue if the prompt did not say that it was blue. False effect is that the object implied to have existed never was present. Despite this, the respondent is convinced otherwise and allows it to manipulate their memory. It can also alter responses to later questions to keep consistency. Regardless of the effect being true or false, the respondent is attempting to conform to the supplied information, because they assume it to be true.

Construction hypothesis

Construction hypothesis has major implications for explanations on the malleability of memory. Upon asking a respondent with a question that provides a presupposition, the respondent will provide a recall in accordance with the presupposition (if accepted to exist in the first place). The respondent will recall the object or detail. The construction hypothesis says that if a true piece of information being provided can alter a respondent's answer, then so can a false piece of information.[9]

Skeleton theory

Loftus developed the skeleton theory after having run an experiment involving 150 subjects from the University of Washington. The skeleton theory explains the idea of how a memory is recalled, which is split into two categories: the acquisition processes and the retrieval processes.

The acquisition processes are in three separate steps. First, upon the original encounter, the observer selects a stimulus to focus on. The information that the observer can focus on compared to the information in the situation is very small. In other words, a lot is going on around us and we only pick up on a small portion. Therefore, the observer must make a selection on the focal point. Second, our visual perception must be translated into statements and descriptions. The statements represent a collection of concepts and objects; they are the link between the event occurrence and the recall. Third, the perceptions are subject to any "external" information being provided before or after the interpretation. This subsequent set of information can alter recall.

The retrieval processes come in two steps. First, the memory and imagery is regenerated. This perception is subject to what foci the observer has selected, along with the information provided before or after the observation. Second, the linking is initiated by a statement response, "painting a picture" to make sense of what was observed. This retrieval process results in either an accurate memory or a false memory.

Relational processing

Memory retrieval has been associated with the brain's relational processing. In associating two events (in reference to false memory, say tying a testimony to a prior event), there are verbatim and gist representations. Verbatim matches to the individual occurrences (i.e. I do not like dogs because when I was five a chihuahua bit me) and gist matches to general inferences (i.e. I do not like dogs because they are mean). Keeping in line with the fuzzy-trace theory, which suggests false memories are stored in gist representations (which retrieves both true and false recall), Storbeck & Clore (2005) wanted to see how change in mood affected the retrieval of false memories.

After using the measure of a word association tool called the Deese–Roediger–McDermott paradigm, the subjects' moods were manipulated. Moods were either oriented towards being more positive, more negative, or were left unmanipulated. Findings suggested that a more negative mood made critical details, stored in gist representation, less accessible.[10] This would imply that false memories are less likely to occur when a subject was in a worse mood.

Therapy-induced memory recovery

Recovery strategies

Memories recovered through therapy have become more difficult to distinguish between simply being repressed or having existed in the first place. Therapists have used strategies such as hypnotherapy, repeated questioning, and bibliotherapy. These strategies may provoke the recovery of nonexistent events or inaccurate memories.[3][11][12][13] A recent report indicates that similar strategies may have produced false memories in several therapies in the century before the modern controversy on the topic which took place in the 1980s and 1990s.[14]

Laurence and Perry conducted a study testing the ability to induce memory recall through hypnosis. Subjects were put into a hypnotic state and later woken up. Observers suggested that the subjects were woken up by a loud noise. Nearly half of the subjects being tested concluded that this was true, despite it being false. Though, by therapeutically altering the subject's state, they may have been led to believe that what they were being told was true.[15] Because of this, the respondent has a false recall.

A 1989 study focusing on hypnotizability and false memory separated accurate and inaccurate memories recalled. In open-ended question formation, 11.5% of subjects recalled the false event suggested by observers. In a multiple-choice format, no participants claimed the false event had happened. This result led to the conclusion that hypnotic suggestions produce shifts in focus, awareness, and attention. Despite this, subjects do not mix fantasy up with reality.[5]

Therapy-induced memory recovery is a prevalent subcategory of memory recall prompting discussion of false memory syndrome. This phenomenon is loosely defined, and not a part of the DSM. However, the syndrome suggests that false memory can be declared a syndrome when recall of a false or inaccurate memory takes great effect on your life. This false memory can completely alter the orientation of your personality and lifestyle.[5]

The "lost-in-the-mall" technique is another recovery strategy. This is essentially a repeated suggestion pattern. The person whose memory is to be recovered is persistently said to have gone through an experience even if it may have not happened. This strategy can cause the person to recall the event as having occurred, despite its falsehood.[16]

Legal cases

Therapy-induced memory recovery has made frequent appearances in legal cases, particularly those regarding sexual abuse. In Ramona v. Isabella, two therapists wrongly prompted a recall that their patient, Holly Ramona, had been sexually abused by her father. It was suggested that the therapist, Isabella, had implanted the memory in Ramona after use of the hypnotic drug sodium amytal. After a nearly unanimous decision, Isabella had been declared negligent towards Holly Ramona. This 1994 legal issue played a massive role in shedding light on the possibility of false memories' occurrences.

In another legal case where false memories were used they helped a man to be acquitted of his charges. Joseph Pacely had been accused of breaking into a woman's home with the intent to sexually assault her. The woman had given her description of the assailant to police shortly after the crime had happened. During the trial, memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus testified that memory is fallible and there were many emotions that played a part in the woman's description given to police. Loftus has published many studies consistent with her testimony.[9][17][18] These studies suggest that memories can easily be changed around and sometimes eyewitness testimonies are not as reliable as many believe.

Although there have been many legal cases in which false memory appears to have been a factor, this does not ease the process of distinguishing between false memory and real recall. Sound therapeutic strategy can help this differentiation, by either avoiding known controversial strategies or to disclosing controversy to a subject.[3][5][19] In each case, the recovered memory therapy was declared inadmissible and not scientifically sound. The fact that recovered memories cannot necessarily distinguish between true and false meant the quality of evidence was weakened and the cases concluded against the therapists. The objection to therapeutic recovery techniques has been argued by comparing the ethics of memory elimination techniques such as electroconvulsive therapy.[13]

Harold Merskey published a paper on the ethical issues of recovered-memory therapy.[19] He suggests that if a patient had pre-existing severe issues in their life, it is likely that "deterioration" will occur to a relatively severe extent upon memory recall. This deterioration is a physical parallel to the emotional trauma being surfaced. There may be tears, writhing, or many other forms of physical disturbance. The occurrence of physical deterioration in memory recall coming from a patient with relatively minor issues prior to therapy could be an indication of the recalled memory's potential falsehood.[19]

In children

If a child experienced abuse, it is not typical for them to disclose the details of the event when confronted in an open-ended manner.[20] Trying to indirectly prompt a memory recall can lead to the conflict of source attribution, as if repeatedly questioned the child may try to recall a memory to satisfy your question. The stress being put on the child can make recovering an accurate memory more difficult.[1] Some people hypothesise that as the child continuously attempts to remember a memory, they are building a larger file of sources that the memory could be derived from, potentially including sources other than genuine memories. Children that have never been abused that undergo similar response-eliciting techniques can disclose events that never occurred.[20] If one concludes that the child's recalled memory is false, we see a type I error. Assuming the child did not recall an existing memory we see type II error.

One of children's most notable setbacks in memory recall is source misattribution. Source misattribution is the flaw in deciphering between potential origins of a memory. The source could come from an actual occurring perception, or it can come from an induced and imagined event. Younger children, preschoolers in particular, find it more difficult to discriminate between the two.[21] Lindsay & Johnson (1987) concluded that even children approaching adolescence struggle with this, as well as recalling an existent memory as a witness. Children are significantly more likely to confuse a source between being invented or existent.[22]

See also

Topics related to false memory include:


  1. 1 2 Bremner, J. D.; Krystal, J. H.; Charney, D. S.; Southwick, S. M. (1996). "Neural mechanisms in dissociative amnesia for childhood abuse: Relevance to the current controversy surrounding the "false memory syndrome". American Journal of Psychiatry. 153 (7): 71–82. doi:10.1176/ajp.153.7.71. PMID 8659644.
  2. Davis, J (2005). "Victim narratives and victim selves: False memory syndrome and the power of accounts". Social Problems. 52 (4): 529–548. doi:10.1525/sp.2005.52.4.529.
  3. 1 2 3 Ware, R (1995). "Scylla and Charybdis – Sexual abuse or false memory syndrome – Therapy-induced memories of sexual abuse". Journal of Analytical Psychology. 40 (1): 5–22. doi:10.1111/j.1465-5922.1995.00005.x. PMID 7868381.
  4. Christianson, S.; Loftus, E. (1987). "Memory for traumatic events". Applied Cognitive Psychology. 1 (4): 225–239. doi:10.1002/acp.2350010402.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Gleaves, David H.; Smith, Steven M.; Butler, Lisa D.; Spiegel, David (2004). "False and recovered memories in the laboratory and clinic: A review of experimental and clinical evidence". Clinical Psychology-Science and Practice. 11 (1): 3–28. doi:10.1093/clipsy.bph055.
  6. 1 2 3 Loftus, E (1974). "Reconstruction of automobile destruction – Example of interaction between language and memory". Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 13 (5): 585–589. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(74)80011-3.
  7. Kaplan, R (2001). "Is there a false memory syndrome? A review of three cases". Comprehensive Psychiatry. 42 (4): 342–348. doi:10.1053/comp.2001.24588. PMID 11936143.
  8. Friedman, M (1996). "PTSD diagnosis and treatment for mental health clinicians". Community Mental Health Journal. 32 (2): 173–189. doi:10.1007/bf02249755. PMID 8777873.
  9. 1 2 Loftus, E (1975). "Leading questions and eyewitness report". Cognitive Psychology. 7 (4): 560–572. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(75)90023-7.
  10. Storbeck, J.; Clore, G. (2005). "With sadness comes accuracy; with happiness, false memory". Psychological Science. 16 (10): 785–791. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01615.x. PMID 16181441.
  11. McElroy, S.; Keck, P. (1995). "Recovered memory therapy – False Memory Syndrome and other complications". Psychiatric Annals. 25 (12): 731–735. doi:10.3928/0048-5713-19951201-09.
  12. Gold, S (1997). "False memory syndrome: A false dichotomy between science and practice". American Psychologist. 52 (9): 988–989. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.52.9.988.
  13. 1 2 Sher, L (2000). "Memory creation and the treatment of psychiatric disorders". Medical Hypotheses. 54 (4): 628–629. doi:10.1054/mehy.1999.0911. PMID 10859653.
  14. Patihis, Lawrence; Burton, Helena J. Younes (2015-01-01). "False memories in therapy and hypnosis before 1980.". Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. 2 (2): 153–169. doi:10.1037/cns0000044.
  15. Laurence, J.; Perry, C. (1983). "Hypnotically created memory among highly hypnotizable subjects". Science. 222 (4623): 523–524. doi:10.1126/science.6623094. PMID 6623094.
  16. Loftus, E (2005). "Planting misinformation in the human mind: A 30-year investigation of the malleability of memory". Learning & Memory. 12 (4): 361–366. doi:10.1101/lm.94705.
  17. Powers, Peter A.; Andriks, Joyce L.; Loftus, Elizabeth F. (1979). "Eyewitness accounts of females and males". Journal of Applied Psychology. 64 (3): 339. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.64.3.339.
  18. Loftus, Elizabeth F.; Greene, Edith (1980). "Warning: Even memory for faces may be contagious". Law and Human Behavior. 4 (4): 323. doi:10.1007/BF01040624.
  19. 1 2 3 Merskey, H (1996). "Ethical issues in the search for repressed memories". American Journal of Psychotherapy. 50 (3): 323–335. PMID 8886232.
  20. 1 2 Ceci, S.; Loftus, E.; Leichtman, M.; Bruck, M. (1994). "The possible role of source misattributions in the creation of false beliefs among preschoolers". International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. 42 (4): 304–320. doi:10.1080/00207149408409361. PMID 7960288.
  21. Foley, M.; Johnson, M. (1985). "Confusions between memories for performed and imagined actions – a developmental comparison". Child Development. 56 (5): 1145–1155. doi:10.2307/1130229. PMID 4053736.
  22. Lindsay, D.; Johnson, M.; Kwon, P. (1991). "Developmental-changes in memory source monitoring". Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 52 (3): 297–318. doi:10.1016/0022-0965(91)90065-z. PMID 1770330.

Further reading

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