You may be surprised to learn that it’s easier to manipulate your memory than you might have imagined. Or so says new research recently published that summarizes the findings of “false memories” and something found easy to manipulate — our feelings about food.
In the article, researchers Bernstein and Loftus (2009) examine a half dozen studies that have been conducted examining whether researchers could place false memories — memories that are specifically not true — into ordinary people. The particular false memories implanted had to do with food preferences — such as a liking for asparagus that the person never had, or getting sick from eating egg salad (when that had never actually happened to the person).
The researchers also conducted a number of studies to examine this phenomenon. In one experiment, subjects completed a series of questionnaires, including a personality inventory and a Food History Inventory. A week later, they were brought back into the laboratory and told their responses had been entered into a computer that generated a profile of their early childhood experiences with food.
One of the findings for the experimental group was that either they “got sick after eating a hard-boiled egg” or “you felt ill after eating a dill pickle.” After learning of this information, the subjects then completed the same Food History Inventory. Those subjects that were just falsely told they had gotten sick after eating a hard-boiled egg or dill pickle demonstrated a significantly less preference for and willingness to eat either food item.
Remember, they hadn’t actually gotten sick from eating either of these foods — that was simply the researcher’s reminder to them of a childhood preference that they never had. Their preferences for these two foods were noticeably altered after receiving this false information. The researchers also found this suggestion can work for some fattening foods (those that are less common, like strawberry ice cream), but not for others (those that are more common, like chocolate chip cookies).
This technique also appears to work to plant a positive false memory, like an inordinate love for asparagus. Subjects who were told that they loved asparagus as a child the first time they tried it ended up enjoying asparagus more than the control subjects (who had no asparagus suggestion made to them). Not only that, but false asparagus-loving people found it more appetizing and less disgusting than controls, and would pay more for asparagus at a grocery store!
It works with real food too. Adults who were told they had become ill after eating egg salad as children ate fewer egg salad sandwiches than control group subjects did, both immediately after being “reminded” of their egg salad preferences and even up to 4 months later (as measured by the actual egg salad sandwiches they ate).
The researchers warn that therapists can’t use these techniques on their clients, even for good, positive behavioral changes, because it would likely be unethical to manipulate a client’s behavior by implanting false memories in this manner. And of course, we also don’t know how generalizable such memories are — while food-related memories may work for people grappling with an eating disorder, they aren’t going to be of much help with someone with PTSD.
You might ask, “Are these really ‘memories’ they’re creating? Or is it simply the power of suggestion framed as a memory?” The researchers argue against this by trying to simply associate a food with a positive or negative emotion, which didn’t change subjects’ behaviors toward the food. I’m not entirely convinced by their reasoning, but leave it to future research to untease.
The researchers show that positive and negative false memories about a childhood experience can be indeed implanted and that, once implanted, they may have very real consequences in changing our behavior, and the way we think and feel about the experience. This is why the whole concept of recovering “forgotten” memories of your childhood is so fraught with danger. Memory is not like a video recorder, recording every moment of our lives in accurate detail. It is a murky, complex system that can be manipulated, as this research shows.
Bernstein, D.M. & Loftus, E.F. (2009). The consequences of false memories for food preferences and choices. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4(2), 135-139.