People are no better than chance at identifying when someone else is recounting a false or real memory of a crime, according to a new UCL study.
The findings, published in Frontiers in Psychology, build on a previous study that was the first to successfully implant false memories of committing a crime – involving either assault or assault with a weapon that resulted in police contact.
Definitions of False Memory
How do psychologists define false memory? How do they distinguish it from other forms of memory fallibility? Some common elements of false memory include:
- False memories are mental experiences that people believe are accurate representations of past events.
- False memories often revolve around trivial details (believing you put your keys on the table when you got home) to much more serious (believing you saw someone at the scene of a crime).
- False memory differs from simple memory errors. While we are all prone to memory fallibility false memory is more than a simple mistake; it involves a level of certitude in the validity of the memory.
While we all experience memory failures from time to time, false memories are unique in that they represent a distinct recollection of something that did not actually happen. It is not about forgetting or mixing up details of things that we experienced; it is about remembering things that we never experienced in the first place.
Study author Dr Julia Shaw (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) said: “Everyone thinks that they couldn’t be tricked into believing they have done something they never did, and that if someone were telling them about a false memory, they would be able to spot it.
But we found that actually, people tend to be quite susceptible to having false memories, and they sound just like real memories.”
For the previous study, published in 2015, Dr Shaw and a colleague invited young adults into a study about emotional memories, and also spoke with a member of their family to learn about events from the participants’ early adolescence, in as much detail as possible.
The researchers spoke to the participants about their past, and used leading questions and suggestive tactics, as well as visualisation techniques to convince the participants that they were helping them recover a forgotten memory – while in fact they were implanting a false memory that the participant had committed a crime when they were young, such as theft or assault.
“We were essentially doing exactly ‘what not to do’ when conducting a police interview,” explained Dr Shaw.
The 2015 study reported that the majority of participants developed a false memory of committing a crime, and the participants consistently reported that the false memories felt incredibly real.
The current research involves two studies that used videos from the 2015 study, of the study participants recounting their false memories of a crime, which they believed to be real.
The new participants watched those videos and were asked if the person was describing an event that actually happened or not.
Participants were only 53% accurate (no better than chance) at identifying false memories of committing a crime. These results were replicated in the second study.
Even when participants were explicitly told that one of the memories they watched was false, their judgment was still no better than tossing a coin.
In addition to incorrectly believing false memories to be true, participants were just as likely to watch someone recount a genuine memory, and then misidentify it as false, once the research team told them that some of the videos would feature false memories.
In other words, many true memories looked like false memories.
“Legal professionals and police officers need to realise how easy it is to manipulate someone’s memories.
Judges in particular should never assume that they can tell when someone has a false memory, and should consider the entire process to see if there was any risk of contamination of a defendant or witness’ memories,” Dr Shaw said.
“The findings really highlight how important it is to ensure that criminal proceedings are done right.
The questioning process should be evidence-based, to reduce the risk of implanting false memories in people being questioned by the police.”
How False Memories Form
In the lost-in-the-mall study, implanta- tion of false memory occurred when another person, usually a family member, claimed that the incident happened.
Corroboration of an event by another person can be a powerful technique for instilling a false memory. In fact, merely claiming to have seen a person do something can lead that person to make a false confession of wrongdoing.
This effect was demonstrated in a study by Saul M. Kassin and his colleagues at Williams College, who investigated the reactions of individuals falsely accused of damaging a computer by pressing the wrong key.
The innocent participants initially denied the charge, but when a confederate said that she had seen them perform the action, many participants signed a confession, internalized guilt for the act and went on to confabulate details that were consistent with incriminating evidence can induce people to accept guilt for a crime they did not commit and even to develop memo- ries to support their guilty feelings.
Research is beginning to give us an understanding of how false memories of complete, emotional and self-participatory experiences are created in adults.
First, there are social demands on indi- viduals to remember; for instance, researchers exert some pressure on participants in a study to come up with memories. Second, memory construction by imagining events can be explicitly encouraged when people are having trouble remembering.
And, finally, individu- als can be encouraged not to think about whether their constructions are real or not. Creation of false memories is most likely to occur when these external factors are present, whether in an experimental setting, in a therapeutic setting or during everyday activities.
False memories are constructed by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others. During the process, individuals may forget the source of the information. This is a classic example of source confusion, in which the content and the source become dissociated.
Of course, because we can implant false childhood memories in some individuals in no way implies that all memories that arise after suggestion are necessarily false.
Put another way, although experimental work on the creation of the validity of long-buried memories, such as repeated trauma, it in no way disproves them.
Without corroboration, there is little that can be done to help even the most experienced evaluator to differentiate true memories from ones that were suggestively planted.
The precise mechanisms by which such false memories are constructed await further research. We still have much to learn about the degree of confidence and the characteristics of false memories created in these ways, and we need to discover what types of individuals are particularly susceptible to these forms of suggestion and who is resistant.
As we continue this work, it is important to heed the cautionary tale in the data we have already obtained: mental health professionals and others must be aware of how greatly they can influence the recollection of events and of the urgent need for maintaining restraint in situations in which imagination is used as an aid in recovering presumably lost memories.