Slate has an interview with University of California–Irvine psychologist and law professor Elizabeth Loftus, who has spent her career studying the problem of false memories and how easily they can be planted in our brains, deliberately or not, and seem totally authentic and accurate to us even if they’re really a combination of accurate memory and information that was added later.
Alison George: You study the fallibility of memories. Are we all prone to making things up?
Elizabeth Loftus: We all have memories that are malleable and susceptible to being contaminated or supplemented in some way.
AG: I hear you collect accounts of false memories.
EL: Yes, mostly embarrassing mistakes that politicians have made. For example, Mitt Romney had a memory of being at the Golden Jubilee—an important festival in Michigan—and it turned out that the event occurred nine months before he was born.
AG: How does this happen? What exactly is going on when we retrieve a memory?
EL: When we remember something, we’re taking bits and pieces of experience—sometimes from different times and places—and bringing it all together to construct what might feel like a recollection but is actually a construction. The process of calling it into conscious awareness can change it, and now you’re storing something that’s different. We all do this, for example, by inadvertently adopting a story we’ve heard—like Romney did.
Here’s an example of how such a memory can be planted in an experimental situation:
AG: How do you plant these memories?
EL: We use a “false feedback” technique. We gather a whole bunch of data from you, about your personality, thoughts about different foods, all kinds of things. Later, we hand you this computerized profile, which reveals certain things that probably happened when you were a child. In the middle of the list is, say, that you got sick eating strawberry ice cream. We give you false feedback about your data, and then encourage you to elaborate and imagine.
Later we ascertain whether you have a belief that it happened to you. Then we offer you a choice from all these different foods. In that example we found that participants didn’t want strawberry ice cream as much.
Later studies have shown that if you plant a false memory about a certain food, when you offer people that food, they don’t eat as much of it.
AG: This works with alcohol too?
EL: Yes. We did a similar kind of false-feedback study with vodka. If we make people believe that before the age of 16 they got sick drinking vodka, they don’t want to drink as much vodka.
But most of the time, those memories aren’t implanted deliberately. For most of us — probably all of us, to one degree or another — some of our memories are a combination of reality and un-reality. On a folk wisdom level, we like to think of long-term memory storage like a hard drive — once the memory is stored, barring some damage to the hard drive, the “file” will be the same every time we open it up and look at it. But in reality, every time we recall it and save it there may be information added to it.
If we embellish the story a bit, it will often be saved with that embellishment in it. Tell the story enough times with that embellishment and the memory is then locked in place with that bit of false information. Thus, the high school football game that we lost becomes the game we won, and we scored the touchdown that did it at the last minute, and the person telling the story may actually be unaware that it’s not true. The file has been saved to the brain’s hard drive in an altered form and the new memory has replaced the old one.
It’s appropriate that Loftus is both a professor of psychology and law because this has major implications in our criminal justice system. It’s remarkably easy for police interrogators, for instance, to implant false memories or to subtly change the memories of an eyewitness or even the accused. It probably isn’t done deliberately in most cases, but it goes on quite regularly and is undoubtedly responsible for many false convictions.
Does this mean memory can never be trusted? Of course not. But it means that we need to understand how false memories come about and design safeguards to prevent it from happening as much as possible.