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Henry L. Roediger III and Elizabeth J. Marsh (2009), Scholarpedia,
revision #88994 [link to/cite this
Dr.HenryL.RoedigerIII, Psychology, Washington University, St. Louis, MO
Dr.ElizabethJ.Marsh, Dept. of Psychology & Neuroscience, Duke University
Falsememory refers to cases in which people remember events differently from the way they happened or,
in the most dramatic case, remember events that never happened at all. False memories can be very vivid and
held with high confidence, and it can be difficult to convince someone that the memory in question is wrong.
Psychologists have studied false memories in laboratory situations in which events are well controlled and it
can be known exactly what transpired. Such experiments have uncovered a number of factors that are
responsible for creating false memories. In the next few paragraphs some of these factors will be reviewed.
1 Factors that cause false memories
1.1 Inaccurate perception
1.5 Misattributions of familiarity
2 False autobiographical memories
3 Individual differences in suggestibility
6 Recommended readings
7 External links
Factors that cause false memories
Sometimes the problem begins while the original event is still occurring, that is, while the memory is being
encoded. If the perception of an event is inaccurate, then it cannot be remembered accurately (The interested
reader can link to interesting Scholarpedia pieces on categorical perception and event perception). Consider
the eyewitness who is asked to accurately remember a crime; she may have seen the perpetrator only briefly,
in the dark, from a distance, and while experiencing stress – all conditions that reduce her ability to see him
in the first place, which will in turn dramatically reduce her later ability to identify him.
False memories may also arise from inferences made during an event. The witness to a crime is actively trying
to figure out what is going on during the event, and uses prior knowledge to make sense of what is happening.
Likewise, the reader interprets short stories while reading them, interpreting simple statements like “Nancy
wenttothedoctor” differently if they know the character is worried about pregnancy (Owens et al. 1979). In
both cases, applying knowledge changes what people remember; the witness may later remember the robbery
as more typical than it was and the reader will misremember the passage to be consistent with the pregnancy
theme. In another simple but highly reliable demonstration, people hear a list of words like bed, rest, awake,
tired, dream, wake, snooze, blanket, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, drowsy. Later on, people claim
“sleep” was on the list, even though it was not presented (Roediger et al. 1995). Humans are biased to extract
meaning from events (e.g., that the list contains sleep-related words), and this may lead to confusions about
what was inferred versus what actually happened. It may also lead to forgetting of non-semantic details, since
people typically attend more to meaning than to perceptual and phonological details. For example, most
people fail when asked to draw a penny, even though they have handled thousands of pennies; successfully
using a penny does not require one to know the direction of Lincoln’s head or the exact wording on the coin
(Nickerson et al. 1979).
Normally memories are retrieved after time has passed, meaning that many events occur after a memory was
stored. Later events may interfere with retrieval of the original event; for example, Spanish learned in college
may come to mind when trying to remember one’s high school French. The eyewitness may read newspaper
accounts about a crime, answer investigator’s questions, talk to other witnesses, and imagine the event in her
mind’s eye. All of these may yield representations that differ from what actually happened, and these new
memories may block access to memories of those events. Consider a classic demonstration in which subjects
watched a slide show of an automobile accident, which included a slide showing a red Datsun approaching a
yield sign. Later, some participants were asked “DidanothercarpasstheredDatsunwhileitwasstoppedat
thestopsign?” This question contained an incorrect presupposition (that there was a stop sign), and affected
later memory. The subjects’ ability to identify the original slide (depicting the yield sign) dropped after
answering the misleading question (Loftus et al. 1978). The suggestion does not need to come from an
external source; describing a face reduces a witness’ ability to pick it out of a line-up (Schooler et al. 1990),
imagining an event can lead the subject to later think she completed the action (Goff et al. 1998), and telling a
story about an event may bias the storyteller’s later memory for that event (Tversky et al. 2000).
Consider some of the problems that may arise when one tries to recognize whether or not an event occurred
in the past. Recognition tests ask subjects to make decisions about whether or not they have seen each of a
series of words, objects or people before, and some of the test items are old (studied) and some are new. The
eyewitness lineup is an example of an everyday recognition test.
False memories can arise when subjects (incorrectly) endorse new items on a recognition test due to their
similarity to original events. Imagine that witnesses to a crime see a male perpetrator in clear daylight, and
give a description of the man to police. Later the police apprehend a man fitting the description and put him
into a line-up with other people fitting the same general description (e.g., 6 foot white male, receding hairline,
no facial hair). Witnesses pick the suspect out of the line-up (the recognition test) and he is later convicted of
the crime. However, several years later, after being captured in an unrelated incident, another man who looks
like the convicted man confesses to the original crime and he also possesses information about the crime that
only the perpetrator could know. In this case, the man originally convicted of the crime was falsely recognized
because of his visual similarity to the actual culprit. While this is a hypothetical example, much laboratory
research shows that exposure to similar events can create illusory memories, with a person confusing the
original event with one that looks (or sounds) like it. In addition, such similarities have led to erroneous
convictions, such as the real case of Ronald Cotton; Cotton was arrested for rape in 1984 and wrongfully
imprisoned for more than ten years.
False memories can also arise when subjects misinterpret why new items on a recognition test feel familiar.
An elegant demonstration of this is known as the false fame effect. Subjects study a list of non-famous names
(e.g., SebastianWeisdorf), and a day later decide whether each of a series of names is famous or not (the
recognition test). Critically, the final test includes somewhat famous names (e.g., MinniePearl), studied non-
famous names (e.g., SebastianWeisdorf), and new non-famous names that were not studied in the first
session (e.g., AdrianMarr). Subjects judged the studied non-famous names as more famous than the new
non-famous names, presumably because they seemed familiar from their recent exposure (Jacoby et al.
1989). That is, the studied non-famous names were familiar because they were seen in the first session of the
experiment and subjects misattributed this familiarity to fame.
False autobiographical memories
Of course many of the most striking examples of false memories may be caused by a combination of the
factors just described. Consider how false autobiographical memories are implanted in the laboratory. The
original demonstration involved implanting a false memory for having been lost in a mall as a child (Loftus et
al. 1995). The experiment required cooperation from close family members, who told the experimenters
several true events that each subject had actually experienced. When the subject came into the lab, she was
interviewed about three true memories and the critical false one (one the relatives assured researchers that
the subject had not experienced as a child). Subjects were interviewed several times over the course of a
month, and by the end of the experiment more than a quarter of subjects retrieved some information about
the false event.
Since the original demonstration, experimenters have successfully implanted false memories for a wide range
of events, including a religious ceremony (Pezdek et al. 1997), a hot air balloon ride (Wade et al. 2002), and a
hospitalization (Hyman et al. 1995). Generally speaking, it is harder to implant false memories of implausible
events. For example, it is hard to convince people that they experienced (but then forgot) receiving an enema
in childhood (Pezdek et al., 1997). Implantation is more likely if the subject elaborates on the suggestion or
imagines it, yielding a richer representation (Hyman et al., 1995). The final step involves misattributing the
event to memory, as opposed to another source. In other words, implanting false autobiographical memories
depends upon many of the factors discussed earlier: the subject brings prior knowledge (e.g., about getting
lost and about malls) to bear and elaborates on the suggestion, the subject continues to think about the event
after the original suggestion was encoded, and the memory is misattributed to childhood rather than to
recent experiences in the lab.
Individual differences in suggestibility
Not all people are equally likely to form false memories. Generally speaking, children and older adults are
more suggestible than college students in most false memory paradigms, although there are a few exceptions
to this rule. Suggestibility also tends to increase with higher scores on the Dissociative Experiences Scale
(DES), a measure of distraction as well as less normal experiences such as hearing voices (Clancy et al. 2002;
Eisen et al. 2001; Hyman et al. 1998). Understanding individual differences in suggestibility is an important
direction for future research.
Many false memories are byproducts of processes that normally support veridical memory. It is efficient for
the perceptual and memory systems to take shortcuts and focus on meaning extraction, since that will suffice
in many cases. Similarly, oftentimes relying on familiarity or other external sources is a good strategy,
because these can be accurate indicators of the past. However, the cost to these shortcuts is that neither a
detailed memory nor a confidently held one is necessarily true. False memories can trick third party
observers like juries and lawyers in addition to tricking the rememberer, and they can be very difficult to
correct once a person becomes confident about an erroneous memory (often from repeatedly remembering
the event a certain way).
Clancy, S. A., McNally, R. J., Schacter, D. L., Lenzenweger, M. F., & Pittman, R. K. (2002). Memory distortion
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Eisen, M. L., Morgan, D. Y., & Mickes, L. (2001). Individual differences in eyewitness memory and
suggestibility: Examining relations between acquiescence, dissociation, and resistance to misleading
information. PersonalityandIndividualDifferences,33, 553-572.
Goff, L. M., & Roediger, H. L., III (1998). Imagination inflation for action events: Repeated imaginings lead to
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Dr. Henry L. Roediger, III's website (http://www.psych.wustl.edu/memory/index.html)
Dr. Elizabeth J. Marsh's Website (http://dev-pn.aas.duke.edu/sites/marsh/index.html)
Sponsored by: Eugene M. Izhikevich, Editor-in-Chief of Scholarpedia, the peer-reviewed open-access
Reviewed by (http://www.scholarpedia.org/w/index.php?title=False_memory&oldid=64645) : Anonymous
Accepted on: 2009-07-10 18:09:34 GMT (http://www.scholarpedia.org/w/index.php?
Categories: Psychology Memory Neuroscience Perception Multiple Curators