Study Finds Almost Half of Participants Prone to False Memories

Two decades of research into false memories, that is, “remembering” events that never actually happened, have established such vagaries of memory as a widespread phenomenon. Now, a new “mega-analysis” from the University of Warwick in England involving eight peer-reviewed studies finds that nearly half of participants believed, to some degree, a completely fictitious event from their lives.

Study leader Dr. Kimberley Wade from the Department of Psychology and colleagues found that it can be very difficult to determine when a person is recollecting actual past events, or if they are recalling false memories, even in a controlled research environment, and more so in real life situations.

These findings carry significant implications in many areas, raising questions around the authenticity of memories used in forensic investigations, courtrooms, and therapy treatments.

In addition, the collective memories of a large group of people or society could be incorrect due to misinformation in the news, for example, and have a striking effect on people’s perceptions and behavior.

“We know that many factors affect the creation of false beliefs and memories — such as asking a person to repeatedly imagine a fake event or to view photos to “jog” their memory. But we don’t fully understand how all these factors interact. Large-scale studies like our mega-analysis move us a little bit closer,” said Wade.

“The finding that a large portion of people are prone to developing false beliefs is important. We know from other research that distorted beliefs can influence people’s behaviors, intentions and attitudes.”

The eight “memory implantation” studies involved 400 participants who were given fictitious autobiographical events about their lives. Participants in these studies said they recalled a range of false events, such as taking a childhood hot air balloon ride, playing a prank on a teacher, or creating havoc at a family wedding.

A total of 30 percent of the participants appeared to “remember” the event in that they accepted the suggested event as fact, even going as far as to elaborate on how the event occurred and to describe images of what the event was like. Another 23 percent of the subjects showed signs that they accepted the suggested event to some degree and believed it really happened.

Scientists have been using variations of this procedure for 20 years to study how people create false memories.

Wade and colleagues also stated that their mega-analysis can systematically combine data that are not amenable to meta-analysis, and provided the most valid estimate of false memory formation, and moderating factors, within the research literature on implantation.

Source: University of Warwick