Wednesday, February 2, 2011

False Memories: Source Confusion and Suggestion

On Monday I talked about memory of emotionally-intense or traumatic events. Today: a few wacky and hilarious (and sometimes tragic and awful) ways our recollections sometimes gets a bit twisted up.

Here's a big one: SOURCE CONFUSION.

Heh. I think that would make a great title for a novel. Anyway, it's also called source-monitoring error, which isn't nearly as snappy. It's exactly what it sounds like: you misattribute the source of a memory. A few notable examples:
  • Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a story of a certain heroic WWII pilot during his 1980 presidential campaign. He claimed he knew about this story because during the war it was his job to choose who got awarded medals. He recalled the story with tears in his eyes as he quoted the pilot's final words as he went down with his plane. Except he was actually quoting a line from a movie called "Wing and a Prayer."
  • A female rape victim accused a noted memory expert (Dr. Donald Thompson) of having been the culprit. Except he'd been doing a live television interview just before the crime occurred. It turned out she'd seen him on television and confused his face with that of her attacker.
  • When her class was asked if they knew any examples of family members' hardships during the Great Depression, nerdy sophomore history student Sarah Fine raised her hand and then told the class a story about her grandfather. Except, er, it was remarkably similar to a story the history teacher himself had told about his own grandfather the year before. Oops.
This error happens all the time. Have you ever known something but you didn't know where you'd heard it? Have you ever accidentally mashed two memories into one (like the dude who remembered renting a U-Haul to Timothy McVeigh and insisted there was another guy with him ... except it was actually a guy he'd rented a truck to the day before)?

Here's another way our memories can get combobboswizzelated, and boy has this one wreaked some havoc: SUGGESTION AND IMAGINATION

I really hope there aren't therapists out there who still do this, but a few decades ago, one popular fad in treatment was to help folks dig out "repressed" memories. Now, I am NOT saying that some individuals haven't had traumatic experiences in childhood that they are unable to remember for whatever reason. That happens.

What I AM saying is that it's actually quite easy to get someone to misremember, and it's happened to a few people with pretty disastrous consequences ("memories" of alien abductions, anyone?). One simple technique to create a false or questionable memory: encourage the person to let his/her imagination "run wild" as part of remembering, picturing the possibilities of what could have happened as part of the "remembered" event.
  • Some therapists report they use this strategy to help people recover memories of child abuse
  • Some individuals have been encouraged to remember events from before they were two to three years of age by imagining certain tactile/visual sensations (it's actually impossible to encode, store, and recall long-term memories at that age because of the underdevelopment of the left inferior prefrontal lobe)
  • Some police interrogations use the technique of having the suspect imagine participating in the crime
Research shows "imagining" something occurred without concern over the accuracy of the memory greatly increases the likelihood someone will report remembering something that NEVER actually happened.

There's an absolutely terrifying Scientific American article about how easy it is to create a false memory right here. It was written by one of the foremost researchers in the area of false memory, the "Diva of Disclosure" herself, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus.

SO, these are only a few of the many, many ways our memories are malleable and vulnerable to hornfiggling and other deeply disturbing mental shenanigans. I'm sure I'll post about a few more in the future, but for today: can you think of a time when you had a false memory? Or when you weren't sure whether you were remembering an event that happened to you ... or someone else? Or when you knew something had happened to you, but you weren't sure you were remembered it ... or only another person's account of it?

And for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog this month, we're talking about critique. Check out Laura's take on it!


  1. Wow. That's pretty scary stuff! I imagine people who have these "memories" are certain they are real? Whoa.

    I can't recall anything like this that happened to me. But I'm sure I've a got a memory or two in my brain that doesn't belong to me. ;-)


  2. Wow! Some serious stuff in this post. The "repressed memory" concept was rampant...I *sigh* know. Last week I blogged about the book, THE HEALING CODES. I believe it's a must-read for anyone seeking emotional healing. On a lighter note, it's always amusing to me when I'm remembering an incident with someone and we have two totally different accounts. Both of us swear by our souls that what we remember is the truth.

  3. yup. i know that there are some things that i can *remember* that i wasn't alive or present for- but i've heard the stories so many times, and imagined them so clearly i have vivid memories of them... that's weird. but at least i know those are fals memories! what's totally scary is the thought that some of my trusted memories could be that confused! eeks! but i guess all memories are tainted in a way...

  4. It's scary that it's so easy to manipulate another person's memory. I've often wondered how eye-witness testimony can be trusted when we rewrite the scene in our minds with time, even without any outside influence.

  5. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any false memories. But yes, this is quite a disturbing method in the cases you described *shudders* Is it legal to punch cops in the face for doing this???? ;)

    Oh, and your false memory about the Great Depression? E-P-I-C!

  6. Well... the tricky thing about false memories is that you don't really know if they're false or not.

    It is a good source for a story though.


  7. Loftus! Read some of her stuff--memory is so...inaccurate, LOL!

    I don't even bother to try remembering things, haha!

    Nice post, Sarah--I'm totally LOVING your blog!!!!! :D

  8. LOL Just don't tell my husband this. Then he'll know I'm wrong after all and he was right. ;)

  9. JD and aspiring_x--we all have false memories, and we're all vulnerable to this sort of confabulation, which was why I used myself as an example!

    Em--I think I'm probably going to do a separate post about the concept of repression. It is so, so controversial.

    Deb--yes, eyewitness testimony isn't always accurate and is really vulnerable to mistakes. The research in that area is pretty fascinating, but the consequences--wrongful convictions, in some cases, are pretty dire at times.

    Amparo--we know cops have the best of intentions, like therapists do, but sometimes the methods are really harmful. I like to think that it's not terribly common, but I haven't done in-depth research about interrogation techniques. Not sure I want to ... but maybe I will at some point. And regarding my own example ... sigh. It was an awkward moment for sure.

    Misha--you can prove it's false if you have some verifiable evidence, right? But often, as you say, sometimes that's not available.

    Laura--Loftus has possibly the most fascinating body of research out there. And THANK YOU!

    Stina--hmmm ... ;)

  10. Ah, the unreliable narrator! I did this once. I swear I remembered an encounter with a medical student but I'd just imagined it. It was really weird.

  11. There is an incredible memoir called MY LIE by a journalist named Meredith Maran in which she recounts the story of how,, at 37, she accused her father of sexual assault. She believed she has recovered a "repressed memory" during therapy sessions and, of course, it was entirely false. ... an astounding book.

  12. Victoria--I haven't read that one, but I'll check it out! A few people have been awarded millions of dollars in damages from therapists who have "helped" them recover false memories.

  13. Wow, this is really fascinating. Also scary. You're making me second guess all my memories...:) Seriously, though. Good stuff here.

  14. yikes! you mean i dont got super powers and i cant fly and i didnt ever save the world from those ugly mean creepoids from the planet creepo? false memory? ack! for sure this stuff could get you wondering whats for real and whats not for real if you dont got proof of it.

  15. If it happens that a person A hears a story from another personB so many times that he A imagines that A himself is the protagonist and passes the story as himself... Does that come under confusion or malingering?

  16. Runawaybride--what you're describing is more confabulation, which is reporting events that never happened. Malingering is a term that specifically refers to fabricating or exaggerating symptoms of an illness for some secondary gain like attention/sympathy or financial benefit.

  17. I remember in psych reading the story of a girl that was assaulted by a neighbor and through suggestibility she became convinced that she was actually assaulted by her father. The truth came out, but it's very scary stuff.

    I don't think I've ever had a major false memory, but my mom and I are always arguing about how something happened or who said what. The worst part is we both have our own perception of what happened so it's impossible to prove whose is right.

  18. I stumbled across your blog this evening. When I was a small child I would have dreams about the Challenger disaster. I wasn't born for another 7 months from the day it happened. I could recall the events of the day quite well as if I was there. My parents told me quite often that I wasn't and neither were they. When I was a child a no one could tell me why I would have this, but by the time I was 8 the dream had gone away. I comes back around the time of space shuttle launches and information.