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False Memories, Their Causes and Implications


False memories are remembrances of events and experiences that never occurred, or they denote event recalls of incidences that occurred differently from how one perceives them. Through the use of findings from researches, analyses, and theoretical frameworks, it can be shown that false memories arise from coaching or accidental association of the event with other occurrences in the subject’s life.

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How false memories are formed

Loftus and Pickrell (1995) carried out research among twenty-four Washington university students. They collected information from the participant’s relatives about their childhood experiences. All subjects were expected to give additional details on what they remembered about four events in their childhood. One of these events (the third one) was a false event. A follow-up interview of the participants was done; they were expected to give more details about the events. Another interview was done after the first one. Participants were told that they had been deceived and asked to identify the false event among the four.

It was found that seven of the twenty-four subjects remembered the false memory. When debriefed about the experiment, five subjects wrongly identified some of the true events as false ones. The study, therefore, illustrated that people could be led to remember events that never took place through suggestion. The participants were given cues from the interviewers and took this as background information. The cues were probably general knowledge from other experiences. It was hypothesized by the authors that the false information given must have been stored by the participants together with the background or schematic knowledge.

Afterward, when asked to recall the false event, the subjects then combined the false event with the schematic knowledge and formed one component, which is the pseudo memory. False memories are thus created through suggestion and association with long term memory.

Hyman et al. (1995) also explain that the social demands of an interview process have a direct effect on the way false memories are formed. In their study, the researchers explained to their subjects that they were expected to recall certain components of the experiment, which placed a lot of pressure on them. Similarly, patients in therapeutic settings may also be under pressure to recall certain events if demands are placed upon them by their therapists.

When more than one external person claims that the false event is true (as was the case in the interview), the chances are that the subject will also believe it is true. The parent of the interviewee as well as the experimenter both affirmed that the false event had occurred. This placed a lot of pressure on the subject to agree with the majority that the event had occurred.

Furthermore, people tend to treat their parents as powerful authority figures. The experimenter is also respected highly by the interviewee, thus illustrating why the subject is likely to believe him or her. It has been shown that when social demands are combined with ambiguous stimuli, then the subject is likely to bow to social demands. In the research carried out by Hyman et al. (1995), the subject under discussion was a childhood experience. The matter may likely have been highly ambiguous because it occurred at a time in the past. The interviewee was likely to react to the social demands due to this ambiguity.

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Roediger and McDermott (1995) explain that false memories can be well understood through the implicit associative response school of thought. This theory assumes that subjects tend to encode certain words when they see them or hear them. For instance, if someone hears the word cold, one is likely to think about or associate it with hot. Later on, when the person is asked whether he or she can remember the word hot from the previous encounter, one is likely to claim that he or she can, even when that is not true. An implicit associative response will have occurred in this case. Sometimes the association can occur consciously, or it may be done subconsciously. Unless a subject can monitor their reality carefully, it can be quite easy to mix up false events with real ones.

Implications on the nature of memory

This information on the formation of false memories can be used to understand and deduce the nature of memory itself. Some people tend to depend upon external cues to recall false memories implies that memory does not exist in a vacuum. In other words, little bits of memory does not exist independently from each other. Sometimes one experience may be affected by another. Those disruptions can be brought on by other memories that occurred prior to the event under question or experiences that occurred after the said event.

Reception of misleading information can affect how people recall an event because it merges with the old information in a way that can cause the real event to become supplanted, altered, or extremely distorted. Studies on false memories provide great insights on the formation of memory because they illustrate how new information can affect individuals without prior detection. It is now possible to know why revised data can trick witnesses during court testimonies.

Causes of accidental or intentional memory

Hyman and Pentland (1995) explain that mental imagery can play a huge role in the ability of subjects to recall certain events that occurred to them. It has been shown that people tend to classify particular events as memories if they possess clear mental images of them. Consequently, if an external party intentionally gives mental imageries concerning certain false events, then subjects are likely to think of them as actual memories even when they are not.

These associations show that the intentional creation of false memories can be done when the external party provides mental images to the person under consideration. In psychological circles, this may be akin to strong mental imagery suggestions provided to patients about childhood experiences. It can sometimes be done through tapes, books, and explicit descriptions of the supposed childhood event.

Sometimes the false memory formation process occurs unintentionally if the forces that interfere with memory are created generally. If another similar event occurs after the event is under consideration, these two entities may merge and distort it. As a result, memories can become false.


False memories usually occur due to suggestions offered by interviewers or psychologists if the subject is undergoing therapy. Social demands of the interview process or the therapeutic session can cause an individual to accept the false memory as true. Alternatively, mental imageries given by the external party can also lead to this problem. Such processes illustrate the possibility of the creation of false memories due to intentional coaching. Sometimes the false memory can occur unintentionally due to implicit associative responses. Events that occurred before or after the event can interfere with the actual experience under consideration. False memories, therefore, have high chances of occurrence in the clinical setting, and psychologists need to guard against coaching or to cause them during practice.

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Hyman, I., Husband, H. & Billings, J. (1995). False memories of childhood experiences. Applied cognitive psychology, 9,181-197.

Hyman, I. & Pentland, J. (1996). The role of mental imagery in the creation of false childhood memories. Memory and languages, 35(6), 101-117.

Loftus, E. & Pickrell, J. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric analysis, 25, 720-725.

Roediger, H. & McDermott, K. (1995). Creating false memories: remembering words not presented in lists. Experimental psychology, 21(4), 803-814.

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