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The Formation of False Memories

Article Index
The Formation of False Memories
Lost in a Shopping Mall
Lost Again - Overview
Lost Again - Method
Lost Again - Results
Lost Again - Discussion
False memories of hospitalizations and other events
Final Comment
References

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.
(Figures not included in this email version but the ms. is easy to understand without them)

For most of this century, experimental psychologists have been interested in how and why memory fails.  As Greene2 has aptly noted, memories do not exist in a vacuum.  Rather, they continually disrupt each other, through a mechanism that we call "interference."  Literally thousands of studies have documented how our memories can be disrupted by things that we experienced earlier (proactive interference) or things that we experienced later (retroactive interference).

Relatively modern research on interference theory has focused primarily on retroactive interference effects.  After receipt of new information that is misleading in some way, people make errors when they report what they saw3.  The new, post-event information often becomes incorporated into the recollection, supplementing or altering it, sometimes in dramatic ways.  New information invades us, like a Trojan horse, precisely because we do not detect its influence.  Understanding how we become tricked by revised data about a witnessed event is a central goal of this research.

The paradigm for this research is simple.  Participants first witness a complex event, such as a simulated violent crime or an automobile accident.  Subsequently, half the participants receive new misleading information about the event.  The other half do not get any misinformation.  Finally, all participants attempt to recall the original event.  In a typical example of a study using this paradigm, participants saw a video depicting a killing in a crowded town square.  They then received written information about the killing, but some people were misled about what they saw.  A critical blue vehicle, for instance, was referred to as being white.  When later asked about their memory for the color of the vehicle, those given the phony information tended to adopt it as their memory; they said they saw white4.  In these and many other experiments, people who had not received the phony information had much more accurate memories.  In some experiments the deficits in memory performance following receipt of misinformation have been dramatic, with performance differences as large as 30 or 40%.

This degree of distorted reporting has been found in scores of studies, involving a wide variety of materials.  People have recalled nonexistent broken glass and tape recorders, a clean-shaven man as having a mustache, straight hair as curly, stop signs as yield signs, hammers as screwdrivers, and even something as large and conspicuous as a barn in a bucolic scene that contained no buildings at all.  In short, misleading post-event information can alter a person's recollection in a powerful ways, even leading to the creation of false memories of objects that never in fact existed.