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How Easy is it to Implant a False Memory?

It appears that while it's possible to "implant" memories in you of events that actually never occurred, recent research suggests that it's not as easy as we once thought (Deconstructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime: Commentary on Shaw and Porter).


Consider this: Did you ever get lost in a mall when you were a kid? 


To answer the question you search your memory and often we think the answer is a yes/no kind of thing.  You either did or didn't get lost in a mall.  What we find, however, is that our memories are not nearly that accurate.


In a well-known study from 1997 researcher Elizabeth Loftus discovered that it is possible to get you to recall something that actually never happened.  


What if your answer to the "lost in a mall" question is No?


Then I bring in your brother or sister and have you engage in a fun conversation about your experiences as children.  And what if, during this conversation, your sister/brother says something like, "Oh my god! And remember that time you got lost in that mall! We couldn't find you for like, an hour!"


Starting to doubt yourself?


After a short while, many of Loftus' subjects started to actually "remember" the event - complete with details no one else suggested.


The thing is, some memories are easier than others to  "implant".  Almost all of us get lost in a mall as children and with a little suggestion from friends and family, you might be convinced that something which never occurred actually did.


The recent research doesn't debunk that false memories can be implanted, just that it's not as easy as we once thought.  One study found that over 70% of the participants could be convinced that they committed a crime.  The media picked up with the 70% and ran with it.  The "lost in a mall" memory may be easy to suggest, but critics of the recent study involving memories of a crime committed think that probably only 20% of the subjects were convinced they had, at some point in their lives, committed a crime such as theft or assault with a weapon.


So our memories can be manipulated - just not as easily as was once thought. 



In your MindTap course you'll find a virtual lab activity on the topic of false memories that will allow students to get a deeper understanding of the concept.


In this lab students are introduced to false memory recall:


  • In the “Exploration” portion of the lab students are asked to review six lists of words and recall as many of them as they can
  • then they are asked to recognize words as new or old in relation to the words they were given in the six lists.

In the Synthesis portion of the lab:


  • students learn the independent variables (type of memory test and type of word)
  • and the dependent variable (percentage of words classified as being shown in the lists)
  • see their own results as well as their results compared to the published results obtained by the original researchers.






You'll find this virtual lab in chapter 7 of Pastorino's "What is Psychology?" MindTap course.
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