Examples of False memories

False Memory Syndrome FoundationINTRODUCTION

Most people experience distorted or false memories, often of long ago events, at some time or another. Indeed, psychologists have done thousands of studies showing ways in which our memories can get things wrong. There are many examples of false memories.

Harvard memory researcher Daniel Schacter relates the story of a woman who accused Dr. Donald Thompson of rape. Thompson, also a memory researcher, had been on television in a live interview just before the woman was raped. The woman, who had seen the program, "apparently confused her memory of him from the television screen with her memory of the rapist." [1]

Renowned child psychologist Jean Piaget told the story of his own false memory. He said that his earliest memory was of being kidnapped when he was two years old. He recalled sitting in his baby carriage and watching his nurse defend herself. He saw scratches on her face and a police officer chase the kidnapper away. Others in his family told the story and Piaget was sure it had happened. But it had not. Piaget’s former nurse wrote to his family more than a decade later that she had made up the story. Piaget wrote: "I therefore must have heard, as a child the account of this story...and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory, which was a memory of a memory, but false." [2]

As early as the 1930s, Frederic Bartlett reported on his studies in which he told people a folk tale from an unfamiliar culture and later asked them to recall it from memory. He observed that the memory errors people made were influenced by their own culturally determined expectations.

The website of the Exploratorium in San Francisco has an excellent introduction to some of the different kinds of things that can lead to false memories: Messing With Your Mind by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty.

Misattribution, misinformation, interference, imagination, inaccurate perception, and attention are some of the reasons that we make errors. Memory is prone to fallacy. Feeling confident is no guarantee that a particular memory is correct.

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