An Extreme False Memory—of Committing A Crime

One of the striking discoveries of psychological science is the malleability of memory, as illustrated by the “misinformation effect.”  Experiments by Elizabeth Loftus and others exposed participants to false information. Afterwards, they misremembered a stop sign as a yield sign, a screw driver as a hammer, a peanut can as a Coke can, and a clean-shaven man as having a mustache. 

Even just imagining nonexistent happenings can create false memories—of being sickened by rotten eggs, having one’s finger caught in a mousetrap, of encountering Bugs Bunny (a Warner character) at Disneyland, or even of preschool child abuse. 

For me the most stunning finding is the most recent.  After collecting background information from university students’ parents, researchers Julie Shaw and Stephen Porter prompted the students to recall two events from their past—one a false early adolescent event, embedded in true details of the students’ life, such as the name of a friend.  For some, this nonexistent event involved committing a crime, such as a theft, assault, or even assault with a weapon.  After three interviews, 70 percent of students reported false (and usually detailed) memories of having committed a crime. 

The bottom line: Our memories are not just replays of our past experiences.  Rather, we actively construct our memories at the time of recall.  And that fact of life has implications for criminal interrogation, eyewitness recollections, and even memories retrieved during psychotherapy.