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False Memories in Psychology: Formation & Definition

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  • 0:00 Definition Of False Memories
  • 1:10 How Do False Memories Happen?
  • 2:45 Complexity
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

What are false memories, and how do they happen? More importantly, what can the phenomenon of false memories teach us about the human brain? In this lesson, we discuss memory and some of its complexities.

Definition of False Memories

Do you remember the time you were lost in the mall when you were five? You wandered up and down the stores during Christmas. Finally an elderly couple helped you find your parents. Most likely that exact scenario never happened to you, but when I describe it, you can remember it.

That's right, you can remember things that never happened. A false memory is when a memory of an event did not actually occur. This has been the basis of many, many television shows and movies. On a small scale, this happens with everyone, where they think they remember being somewhere with somebody when they never actually were - like that time you were at the bar with Tony and he ate a ping-pong ball. Wait, you weren't there for that.

This typically does not happen on a larger scale, where I am able to convince you that you spent a year in Iraq, that you have 120 different personalities living in your head, or that you were severely sexually abused as a child. Wait, two of those actually have happened.

The idea has been put forth that there is a False Memory Syndrome in which a person suffers disorders and issues based upon the false memory. It doesn't take advanced education to know that a person who has been physically or sexually abused can have severe problems. The same problems can occur when someone is given false memories of abuse, except the abuse never happened.

How Do False Memories Happen?

So how do false memories get in someone's head in the first place? Memory is not a recording of what happened. Memory is extremely moldable and malleable. Things change as you remember them, change as you think about them, and change as others make you think about them. Elizabeth Loftus has done several studies in false memories, and we will explore two of them here. One simple method of implanting a memory is expectation. If you expect to remember something then you will remember it.

  • Participants in a study watched a video of a car driving through the countryside. Experimenter asks what color the barn was in the background. The participants say red. What color are typical barns? Red. In the video there was no barn, but the expectation of it created the memory.

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Another method of implanting memories that is more complex but just as effective, is to state that plausible situations occurred, and then have outside sources in apparent agreement.

  • Participant is handed a pamphlet with four stories, three that did happen (provided by a family member) and one story that did not happen but could have. All of these stories are supposed to happen around the age of five. The story provided that did not happen was of the participant getting lost in the mall, being frightened, but eventually helped by an elderly couple. The participant would then be asked to remember what they could about these events, any details, or strong memories they had.

Minor hints and additional details were suggested by the experimenter. By the end of the experiment, 75% of the individuals remembered being lost. Of the individuals who had a false memory implanted, about 20% would not accept that the memory was false.

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