Episode 125: False Memories – How Can Your Memory Be So Bad?

We tend to believe our memories are accurate, but they are far from it. The Supreme Court is finally beginning to realize this, now we even may have A physiological marker for false memories. What we remember is a hodge-podge, a patchwork of images, stories, and bits and pieces from our past. In this episode I describe some of the very interesting research showing how our memories can be manipulated in surprising ways. Learn why you loved asparagus as a kid (really you did, really).


Elizabeth Loftus and Eyewitness Testimony

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted numerous experiments regarding the fallibility of the human memory. She has found that human memory is far from exact. To the contrary, she believes that memory can be manipulated in many different ways.

What Causes our Memories to be False?

Stress associated with the traumatic event can be a factor. Introduction of wrong information to the eyewitness can then be processed, and events can be retold by that witness which unknowingly incorporate that misinformation. Depending on the jury’s perception of the eyewitness’s credibility, inaccurate statements can become fact in their minds and this can lead to wrongful convictions.


  • Geraerts, E., Berstien, D.M., Merckelbach, H., Linders, D., Raymaekers, L. & Loftus, E.F. (2008). Lasting false beliefs and their behavioral consequences.  Psychological Science, 19, 749-753.
  • Interview with Elizabeth Loftus: I Could Have Sworn …
  • Lanye, C., Morris, E.K., Bernstein, D.M., Wakefield, B.M. and Loftus, E.F. (2008).  Asparagus, a love story: Healthier eating could be just a false memory away.  Experimental Psychology, 55, 291-300.
  • Loftus, E.L. (1997).  Creating false memories. Scientific American.
  • In New Jersey, Rules Are Changed on Witness IDs
  • Stadler, M.A., Hoediger, H.L. and McDermott, K.B. (1999). Norms for word lists that create false memories. Memory & Cognition, 27(3), 494-500.
  • Related episode: Episode 102: How to Create an Online Experiment on Eyewitness Testimony Accuracy


Comments

  1. says

    Hi Michael

    This is a very interesting episode (I’ve got a few minutes left that I’ll have to listen to this afternoon), but the first couple of studies raised a few questions for me. I haven’t read the papers, so perhaps they’re addressed already.

    With the first study, the focus is on egg salad, and the implication is that the researchers could implant a vague childhood memory of getting sick from it, and this was evidenced by a preference over the last 4 months of not eating egg salad. I guess my issue is this: I don’t know if egg salad is a lot more popular in the Netherlands (where the study was done) but I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw egg salad at a party, let alone ate it. I think I’d be quite happy to eat it, just like egg salad rolls I guess (maybe I’ve seen those recently) but I just tend to choose something like ham and cheese and tomato – not because I’m avoiding egg salad but simply because I find other things more appealing.

    In the next study, they managed to convince people they liked asparagus when, perhaps, they didn’t. I may have missed the details but I could easily imagine not liking something as a child but developing (as I’m guessing you have) an appreciation for it as an adult (e.g. asparagus, broccoli, mustard, …).

    I’m wondering how they control for these kinds of variations.

    The mall experiment sounds very interesting and credible, and makes you wonder what sort of interesting things totalitarian societies could get up to (& have got up to) with the kind of control they have over their citizens. 1984 all over again. Scary stuff.

    Thanks and keep up the good work.

  2. AJ Jack says

    The example that always sticks in my mind is thinking about a slightly embarrassing moment I had when getting off a bus when I was on holidays in Toronto,.
    I remember the moment most vividly, my wife and two kids where with me, I remember what the bus looked like and the people on the bus. Except in my memories, I am getting out of the door of the bus on the LEFT hand side, (the side the door is situated in my familiar environment in Australia) and not the RIGHT hand side, the side the door was actually on.

  3. Michael says

    Very interesting memory AJ. Sounds like your mind was doing exactly what Loftus describes – filling in some of the spaces in your memory with what it THOUGHT should have happened based upon other memories from your past. Interesting.

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