By: Okky Avianti
Bachelor of Psychological Science and Business, Monash University
Examining Factors Behind False Memories and its Impact on Our Lives. Memory is a crucial part of an individual’s life. Individuals need to recall their memory in order to normally function in their day-to-day activities. However, individuals tend to make errors when they are learning or trying to receive information back from their memory. Those errors often include misremembering details of a particular event or even unknowingly recalling an entire event that never happened, which can be referred as false memories. Hence, false memories are considered as semantic or autobiographic memories that are imagined or have never happened (Mendez & Fras, 2011). Understanding false memories can be crucial, as it could give insight on individual’s unconscious processes and mechanisms of memory (Frenda, Nichols, & Loftus, 2011).
Before discussing how false memories could impact our lives, there are several theories that might explain the phenomena of false memories. Most of the work regarding false memories has focused on the cognitive elements of why false memories may occur. Several common theories regarding false memories are source monitoring framework (Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993) and fuzzy trace theory (Brainerd & Reyna, 1998). The first theory is source monitoring framework. The theory investigates individual’s cognitive processes that are utilized in the process of encoding and retrieving memories (Hicks & Marsh, 1999). In addition, the theory also explores the mechanism involved in making attributions regarding the source of individual’s memories and/or thoughts (Johnson et al., 1993).
Source monitoring framework is based on reality monitoring, which refers to individual’s mechanism of differentiating memories that were internally generated from those that originated from an external source (Johnson & Raye, 1981). The framework suggests that when individuals are given information to be remembered, the source of that information is not always tagged in their memory (Leding, 2012). Hence, when individuals try to retrieve the information back, they must undertake judgement processes to make a source attribution (Leding, 2012). Source attributions are constructed based on individual’s beliefs, qualitative characteristics, and decisions about the memories (Griffin & Fletcher, 2017).
Memories that are “true” or based on real-life events are usually quite detailed and include some information regarding context of the memory itself (Leding, 2012). However, internally generated memories usually lack the same amount of detail (Lindsay & Johnson, 2000). Nonetheless, the distribution of the those two memories can overlap, which could lead to false memories of imagined event that are very detailed and convincing (Hekkanen & McEvoy, 2002). Hence, the source of attributions is frequently correct, but individual’s judgement processes can lead to misattributions. It is important to understand that if an individual has a false memory that is perceptually and contextually rich, the source could be misattributed as being a “true” or experienced event.
A research by Neuschatz, Payne, Lampinen, and Toglia (2001) tested this framework by asking participants to differentiate “true” and “false” memory with the information and warnings given. For example, participants were notified that memory of externally sourced items (i.e., items stated on a list) are more likely to have perceptual details and fewer details regarding cognitive systems than memories that are generated internally. However, the results showed that notifying participants about any phenomenological differences in the lists did not reduce any false memory effect (Neuschatz et al., 2001).
Another common theory is the fuzzy-trace theory (FTT). The FTT framework argued that every memory that is created and embedded into an individual forms two parallel memory traces, which are verbatim and gist traces (Reyna, Corbin, Weldon, Brainerd, 2016). The verbatim traces are actual and precise memory representations, whereas vague and subjective-based memory portrayals are called gist traces (Brainerd & Reyna, 2002). The framework explained that verbatim traces could disintegrate more quickly, whilst gist trace stays longer (Leding, 2012). Consequently, when individuals try to remember a certain memory, they are more likely to rely on gist traces rather than verbatim traces, due to verbatim traces nature of decaying quickly (Brainerd & Reyna, 2004).
Another explanation for false memories is an individual’s age. It is well known that older adults tend to have less accurate memory and have enhanced susceptibility to memory errors and source misattributions, such as imagination inflation (McDaniel, Lyle, Butler, & Dornburg, 2008) and misleading information (Wylie, Patihis, & McCuller, 2014). As an individual grows older, their medial temporal lobe (MTL) and prefrontal cortex (PFC) might change. A study by Fandakova, Lindenberger, and Shing (2015) found that deterioration of functional and structural in anterior, dorsolateral, and ventrolateral PFC is linked to reduced memory ability.
However, the mechanism of age-related false memory formation can be caused by several factors, such as binding failures (Ranganath, 2010), decline of strategic retrieval processes (Devitt & Schacter, 2016), and overreliance on the basis of familiarity (Yonelinas, 2002). For instance, Old and Naveh-Benjamin (2008) found that age-related hippocampal decline could produce a distinct deficit in encoding and retrieving relations between items.
There are numerous implications on how false memories could affect an individual. One of the most common incidents is the false eyewitness testimony cause by false memories. In court, juries often depend on eyewitness testimony heavily to decide whether the culprit is guilty or not (Abshire & Bornstein, 2003). However, eyewitness testimonies are often found as implausible and easily susceptible towards false memories (Loftus, 1975; Okado & Stark, 2005). Past literatures on false memories in eyewitness testimonies concentrated on the witness’s errors in identifying the culprit of the crime, such as Morgan III, Southwick, Steffian, Hazlett, and Loftus’s (2013) study. However, Loftus (2005) also argued that eyewitnesses’ false memory could also extend even to the tiniest detail of the crime.
According to Stark, Okado, and Loftus (2010), false memories related to crime details emerge from individual mistakenly combining fragments of their own past experiences (i.e., source misattributions). These source misattributions can happen when an individual receive false information regarding the event they have witnessed, which leads to an attribution in their memory for the information of the original event (Carpenter & Krendl, 2018).
Time delay could also increase eyewitnesses’ susceptibility towards false memories, as they are exposed to numerous sources of information regarding the details of the event (Hardt, Nader, & Nadel, 2013). Information from other witnesses, news reports, or questions given by the police or investigator may incorrectly influence witnesses’ memory traces (Carpenter & Krendl, 2018). Hence, a common method used to induce false memories in false eyewitness testimonies is the misinformation paradigm (Loftus, 2005). In Loftus’ study (2005), participants acquired some stimuli (i.e., video of theft) or involved in an interactive event (i.e., engaging in a magic show). Subsequently, participants received suggestive information regarding the event (i.e., participants were asked “Did the culprit carry a gun?” when there is no gun in the video). Finally, the participants’ memories regarding the original event were tested.
It was found that many participants in Loftus’ (2005) study integrated the misinformation given into their reports, which produces false memory. Hence, the misinformation paradigm is crucial in understanding false eyewitnesses testimonies. Witnesses could misattribute the recently received or induced misinformation relating to the event, which could lead to the formation of false memories (Hupbach, Gomez, Nadel, 2009).
Another common occurrence is false memories of sexual abuse during childhood. A study conducted by Bremner, Shobe, and Kihlstrom (2000) argued that women with self-reported history of childhood sexual abuse are more susceptible to wide range of changes in their memory function, as well as an increase of capacity for false memories. Poorly trained psychologist can intensify this particular phenomenon, as patients could receive suggestive questions or information from psychologist (Lindsay & Read, 1994).
Otgaar, Candel, Merckelbach, and Wade (2009) explained that the implementation paradigm might occur to events like false memories of childhood sexual abuse. In this paradigm, participants were required to recall a fake event (i.e., sexual abuse during childhood). During multiple interviews, participants were asked to remember and report everything regarding the false event. Past literature have shown that suggestive questions and interviews lead up to forty percent of participants recalling that they have experienced the fictitious event (Otgaar, Scoboria, & Smeets, 2013). Both false memory paradigms mentioned in false eyewitness testimony and childhood sexual abuse have something in common, which include influences about the event or information that did not happen to induce false memories (Otgaar, de Ruiter, Howe, Hoetmer, & van Reekum, 2017).
Another example of false memories in individual’s day-to-day activities is through photographs. Memories can be suggested by looking into old photographs, which can change an individual’s memories of an event (Brown & Marsh, 2008; Strange, Hayne, & Garry, 2008). In Lindsay, Hagen, Read, Wade, and Garry’s (2004) research, individuals heard a story of a false childhood event while looking into their old class photograph. After one week, individuals who looked at the photo while hearing the story were twice as likely to recall the event than individuals who only listened to the fictitious story (Lindsay et al., 2004).
Strange et al. (2008) research on the effect of photographs on children’s memories of artificial memory showed that combining photograph with suggestive narrative are enough in creating a false memory. In addition, eighteen percent of children that did not see any photograph (i.e., only listened to the suggestive narrative) also developed a false memory. Strange et al. (2008) findings are critical; it can show that false memory can lead to children or adults believing in traumatic events that never happened.
Additionally, Strange et al. (2008) study showed that imagination could increase children’s confidence in believing the false memory. Thus, the combination of photo imagery and false suggestive narrative could create an impactful false memory (Strange et al., 2008; Powell, Jones, & Campbell, 2003; Thomas & Loftus, 2002). Previous literatures mentioned before regarding photograph as a source of false memory proves that visual imagery or photographs as cues to remember fictitious events can be a major problem in the future.
To summarize, false memory can be explained by several factors or framework, such as the FTT and age-related factors. False memories might impact individuals’ lives, even through the smallest events (i.e., seeing photographs). Thus, memory authenticity can be crucial in many circumstances. For example, in events of an individual giving false testimony due to false memories, the court could arrest the wrong culprit. Hence, it is important to understand the mechanisms underlying false memory in children, young adults, to older adults.
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