Remember that time at school when you played a prank on your math teacher? The one with the curly hair and the pink-rimmed glasses? No? If you were told the story a few times, you might – even if it never happened.
A new study finds that if we are repeatedly told about a fictitious autobiographical event, more than 50 percent of us are likely to believe we experienced it, and some of us may even elaborate on what happened.
Study co-author Dr. Kimberley Wade, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, and colleagues recently published their findings in the journal Memory.
Put simply, memory is the process by which the brain stores and retrieves information and past experiences. It is an imperative part of life, enabling us to form relationships, learn, plan, make decisions, and develop an overall sense of identity.
But memory recall is not a simple, flawless process. According to Dr. Wade and team, most researchers are in agreement that retrieving memories involves some degree of reconstruction – that is, memories can be pieced together through imagination, beliefs, social context, and even suggestions from other people.
“One implication of having a reconstructive and flexible memory system is that people can develop rich and coherent autobiographical memories of entire events that never happened,” note the authors. In other words, some people can create “false memories.”
For their study, Dr. Wade and colleagues set out to get a better idea of the proportion of people who are susceptible to creating false memories.
The researchers analyzed the data of eight studies that used “memory implantation” – whereby participants had false autobiographical events suggested to them, such as having problems with a teacher at school, taking a ride on a hot air balloon as a child, or causing trouble at a wedding.
These suggestions were repeated to participants, and the suggestive techniques involved narratives and/or photos of the fictitious events.
In total, the study included 423 participants, of whom around 53 percent showed some degree of belief that they had experienced the false events.
Of these subjects, more than 30 percent said they “remembered” the fictitious events, describing what occurred and even adding detail. A further 23 percent showed that they accepted the fictitious events and believed they actually occurred.
The researchers say their study has limitations. For example, they are unable to rule out the possibility that some subjects who created false memories may have actually retrieved genuine memories of events that were suggested to them, such as the hot air balloon ride, though they say such cases are rare.
Still, Dr. Wade and team believe their findings help shed light on our susceptibility to false memory formation.
“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.
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.”
Dr. Kimberley Wade
Dr. Wade adds that the results raise questions about the validity of memories recalled in a wide range of areas, including in criminal investigations, court rooms, and counseling.