False Memories, Psychology

  • University of British Columbia forensic psychologist Stephen Porter, one of the two authors of the false memory study, studies the role of memory in the legal system. zoom

Subject: “I remember the two cops. There were two. I know that for sure . . . I have a feeling, like, one was white, and one maybe Hispanic . . . I remember getting in trouble. And I had to like, tell them what I did. And why I did it, and where it happened . . . ”

Interviewer: “You remember yelling?”

Subject: “I feel like she called me a slut. And 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 . . . ”

Interviewer: “So you threw a rock instead?”

Subject: “That was bad. That was bad. Bad scene . . . Oh wow, that’s crazy.”

The person being interviewed is confessing on videotape to a serious crime — throwing a rock so hard at a girl’s head that it left her bleeding and unconscious.

But the assault in this story never happened. The interviewee was the unknowing subject of an experiment showing that innocent people can be led to falsely remember having committed crimes as severe as assault with a weapon.

The new study proves for the first time what psychologists have long suspected: that manipulative questioning tactics used by police can induce false memories — and produce false confessions.

Shaw and Porter recruited 70 students at a Canadian university who had never committed a crime, and told them they’d be taking part in a study about how well people could remember their childhoods. They asked students’ past caregivers for details about a vivid event that had taken place in the students’ lives between ages 11 and 14, such as an accident or an emotional first day at school. Caregivers and students agreed not to communicate about the experiment while it was ongoing.

Researchers questioned the students for three sessions of about 40 minutes each. They asked them to recall two events in their past: the true event and an added false one, both of which they said the caregivers had told them about. The false event was described in as general terms as possible — simply “an assault” or “an incident where you were in contact with the police.”

If subjects said they couldn’t remember the false event, questioners reassured them they would be able to retrieve their “lost memories” if they tried hard enough. If they began to “remember, ” experimenters asked for more detail. Do you recall any images? How did you feel? Visualize what it might have been like, they said, and the memory will come back to you.

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