BY: MICHAEL LYONS
Imagine taking part in a research study. A childhood caregiver has filled out a questionnaire in advance, so as you sit down the researcher asks you to describe a specific memory from your childhood when something emotionally intense happened to you. You describe the event with encouragement from the researcher, and then she asks you about a second event—maybe that time you got into a fight and the police were called. You can’t quite remember what happened, but she tells you your caregiver described the event in detail. Disclosure: this is research about memory retrieval, the researcher says, so try really hard to remember some details. She gives you some exercises to help retrieve the memory, “context reinstatement” and “guided imagery” techniques, and she asks you to practice these exercises on your own. “Most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough,” the researcher says amicably.
At the second and third interviews she asks you to describe both events, give as many details as possible. Do you remember what happened?
What if one of the memories never actually existed?
It turns out, the majority of people will likely create a memory where none actually existed.
If you had any preconceptions that memory is concrete and consistent, this study on false memory published in Psychological Science might change your mind. The implications of the study conducted by UK-based psychological scientist and lead researcher Julia Shaw are disturbing, reflecting a grave flaw in modern legal systems.
Behind the scenes of her study, Shaw began by recruiting more than a hundred undergraduate students, eventually whittling those down to a sample of 70 after consulting questionnaires were sent to the students’ primary caregivers. These questionnaires established two things: the details of a highly emotional event in the participants’ past, and that the participant had never had police contact.
During the first individual interview of three, the researcher established the real memory with the participant. She then established a false memory, either one where the participant was involved in a criminal activity, or simply experienced an event that would cause a lot of stress — like an accident or an animal attack.
They were asked to describe both events, the real and false one, prompted by real “accurate cues” for the former, and randomly assigned details for the latter. Most participants, of course, had difficulty recalling the event that had never happened. At this point they were told the study was an examination of memory-retrieval methods, and asked to practice these methods in the break between interviews.
Over two following interviews participants were asked to provide as many details about the true and false memories as possible; perspective, vividness, sensory details. They were also asked to rate their anxiety experienced at the time of both events, and then at the end of the third interview they were told that out of the confirmed details about the two memories, the second memory was false.
Following this development, the participants were debriefed and separated into one of four categories, depending on their reaction to being told the second memory was false. There were those who had no false memory at all, those who complied with being told the memory was real and provided details without believing it. There were those who accepted the memory was real but couldn’t provide many details about it, and then there were those who not only accepted the memory was real, but could provide more than ten unique memories about something that had never actually happened.
Those last people, the false memory participants, were in the majority. In instances where they were asked to describe a criminal false memory, 70 per cent of the participants fabricated false memories. For the folks prompted with non-criminal false memories, more than 75 per cent ended up in the false memory category.
These are people who genuinely believed in a memory that is completely fabricated by their own minds with very little interference by the researcher, and the details of these memories are astounding. In supplementary material to the study, Shaw included examples of instances where a participant described a false memory, like one participant who remembered a false memory where she physically assaulted another girl:
Interviewer: You remember yelling?
Participant: But like, I know, I feel like she called me a slut. And I got ticked off and threw a rock at her. And the reason why I threw a rock at her was because I couldn’t get close to her. Yes. There was actual, like, no… we weren’t close to each other. That I do remember.
Interviewer: So you threw a rock instead?
Participant: Yes, because I couldn’t like… we were too far away. [… more details…] Like we all pretty much went our own separate ways. I honestly, can remember, like thinking, no big deal. I hit her with a rock, like no big deal. … And then yeah, I remember being so shocked when the cops came. That was bad. That was bad. Bad scene. … Oh wow, that’s crazy.
Shaw notes that many of the students involved had contact with her following the study, and described their astonishment that they were fooled to accept a false memory.
“This implies that false memories may actually be recalled in a way that is surprisingly similar to how memories for real events are retrieved,” the study explains, and continues to explain that “true and false memories have many similar features — including being highly detailed and multi-sensory.”
In the conclusion, Shaw explains that legal systems around the world rely heavily on memory-related evidence. Her study hopes to address concerns that arise with the accuracy of these events.