There is a big chance that many of your memories, and/or parts of them, are fake. Memory distortion is easier than you would imagine. Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist and expert on the malleability of human memory, proves it through decades of experimentation and research. Although this may seem like a bad thing (which it definitely can be) there are ways it can be used for a good cause; for example, to fight addiction or obesity.
Most people feel like their memories define who they are. This makes it difficult for people to accept the reality of false memory. Believe it or not, it is real. It is a psychological phenomenon where a person recalls something that did not happen or differently from the way it actually happened. Elizabeth Loftus has dedicated her life to understanding this phenomenon.
“She’s most known for her important work on memory distortion and false memories (false memory implantation),” says Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University who first met Loftus in 1979 and describes her as energetic, smart and passionate. “It’s made people in the legal system aware the memory does not work like a tape recorder. In fact, Loftus’ research shows your memory works more like a Wikipedia page — a transcription of history created by multiple people’s perceptions and assumptions that’s constantly changing.”
One of her first experiments was back in 1974. It involved showing participants of the study a set of video clips of car accidents. The subjects were asked questions after watching the videos to see what they remembered. They discovered that, what the participants remembered would be different depending on how the questions were phrased.
For example, when asked how fast the cars were going ‘when they “smashed” into each’ other vs. ‘when they “hit” each other’ the speed was higher by more than 5mph. Then, when asked a week later if there was broken glass, the people to whom they used the word “smashed” with answered yes…even though there was no broken glass in the film.
Even a minute detail like using the word “a” vs “the” can make a difference. For example, in a subsequent study she asked people if they saw “a broken headlight” or “the broken headlight.” Those who were asked about “the” broken headlight were more likely to remember seeing it, though it never existed.
“Police officers’ biggest mistake is talking too much,” Loftus says. “They don’t, you know, wait and let the witness talk. They are sometimes communicating information to the witness, even inadvertently, that can convey their theory of what happened, their theory of who did it…It’s not all the cops’ fault… Misinformation is out there in the real world, everywhere…Witnesses talk to each other … they turn on the television or read the newspaper if it’s a high-publicity event. They see other witnesses’ account. All of these situations provide opportunities for new information to supplement, distort or contaminate their memories.”
“DNA testing … has revealed that there are hundreds and hundreds of people who have been convicted in crimes, and they’re completely innocent,” she says, noting that they’re often convicted because of unreliable eyewitness testimony.
In another on of her experiments called “The Formation of False Memories” (1995) she recruited 24 of her students and their closest family members. Each family member wrote 3 stories from a childhood memory of their student. A fourth false memory was included into the pack without anyone involved knowing about it. The packs were given to the students to read over.
Upon reviewing their packets, each student had to identify whether they remembered the 4 events and how confident they were that they had happened to them. Then there was a follow-up interview where they had to recall details from the events they remembered. 7 of the 24 students remembered the false memory, and several of them even added in their own details.
“It was pretty exciting to watch these normal, healthy individuals pick up on the suggestions in our interviews, and pick up the false information that we fed them,” Loftus says.
Reviewing what she had learned from these studies, she began to wonder if she could not only implant memories, but influence other behaviors through the implementation. If so, it would be possible to use false memories to help people.
This time the experiment involved convincing someone they had gotten really sick as a child from eating a specific food. A week later the participants were questioned about the incident. Many of them had developed a detailed memory (a “rich false memory” as she calls it) about when they had gotten sick. A follow-up on the participants revealed that the memory had in fact affected their actual eating behavior.
In conclusion, false memories can be extremely harmful (like someone going to jail for 20 years because of a witness’ false memory) or helpful (like by convincing someone that they are disgusted by alcohol to get them to quit drinking). Our memories are fragile and alterable by everything and everyone around us including our own thoughts and desires. Studies have shown that when you feed people misinformation about some experience that they may have had, you can distort or contaminate or change their memory.
Loftus reminds us to keep in mind, “just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn’t mean that it really happened.”