Creating false memories

Elizabeth Loftus in 1995:

This manuscript is close to the final version that was published with this citation:
Loftus, E.F. & Pickrell, J.E. (1995) The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725.

So, scroll down to Lost in a Shopping Mall.

Most of the experimental research on memory distortion has involved deliberate attempts to change memory for an event that actually was experienced. An important issue is whether it is possible to implant an entire false memory for something that never happened. Could it be done in an ethically permissible way? Several years ago a method was conceived for exploring this issue; why not see whether people could be led to believe that they had been lost in a shopping mall as a child even if they had not been. (See Loftus & Ketcham, 5 for a description of the evolution of the idea for the study). In one of the first cases of successful implantation (Loftus & Coan, 6), a 14 year old boy named Chris was supplied with descriptions of three true events that supposedly happened in Chris’s childhood involving Chris’s mother and older brother Jim. Jim also helped construct one false event. Chris was instructed to write about all four events every day for five days, offering any facts or descriptions he could remember about each event. If he could not recall any additional details he was instructed to write “I don’t remember”.

The false memory was introduced in a short paragraph. It reminded Chris that he was five at the time, that Chris was lost at the University City shopping mall in Spokane, Washington where the family often went shopping. That Chris was crying heavily when he was rescued by an elderly man and reunited with his family.

Over the first five days, Chris remembered more and more about getting lost. He remembered that the man who rescued him was “really cool.” He remembered being scared that he would never see his family again. He remembered his mother scolding him.

A few weeks later Chris was reinterviewed. He rated his memories on a scale from l (not clear at all) to ll (very, very clear). For the three true memories, Chris gave ratings of 1, 10, and 5. For the false shopping mall memory, he assigned his second-highest rating: 8. When asked to describe his getting lost memory, Chris provided rich details about the toy store where he got lost and his thoughts at the time (“Uh-oh. I’m in trouble now.”) He remembered the man who rescued him as wearing a blue flannel shirt, kind of old, kind of bald on top…. “and, he had glasses.”

Chris was soon told that one of the memories was false. Could he guess? He selected one of the real memories. When told that the memory of being lost was the false one, he had trouble believing it.

Note, in case anyone reads this without having read previous threads including the comments, I’m not posting this here to suggest that Dylan Farrow has a false (created) memory. It’s part of the broader discussion about memory.