False memories are terrifyingly easy to create

One of many reasons why I am skeptical about surveys that ask students about mundane events over the course of an entire academic year.

Students were told about two events that happened during their teenage years. One event was true and based on information supplied by the students’ parents. The other event was fabricated, but included a smattering of true details, such as the city where they lived and the name of a friend they had during the alleged event.

The students were then asked to explain what happened during the two events.

When students were unable to recall the fabricated event, the interviewer would tell them to keep trying. “Most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough,” the interviewer would say. Students were told to practise visualizing the false event each night at home and to record any details that came to mind.

Students were led to believe that the interviewer had received detailed information about the false event from their parents. “This sounds like what your parents described,” the interviewer might say, but “I can’t give you more details because they have to come from you.”

Interviewers used other tactics, such as nodding or smiling as students answered and deliberately pausing or staying silent to encourage students to provide additional details.

By the end of three sessions, 70 per cent of students who had been led to believe they had committed crimes as teenagers were persuaded they had done so. One student recalled throwing a rock at a girl. “I got ticked off and threw a rock at her. And the reason why I threw a rock at her was because I couldn’t get close to her,” she told the interviewer.

Please note I am not the co-author of this study, he just has a cool name.


Stephen By Stephen

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Professor and quant guy. Libertarian turned populist Republican. Trying to learn Japanese and play Spanish Baroque music on the ukulele.

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