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False Memories

False Memories

False memory refers to the recollection of an event, or the details of an event, that did not occur.

 

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Mee Young Jeong

Mee Young Jeong

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Because past events are often experienced with other people and those memories can be subsequently shared in social reminiscence, we sought to extend our imagination inflation research with the campus walk procedure by adding a confederate to determine whether collaborative recall before memory testing could influence these false recollections. As Barnier and Sutton (2008) noted, family and friends often discuss their shared experiences as individuals attempt to augment their sometimes fragmentary or incomplete memories of prior events.

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In two experiments, we evaluated the memory characteristics of real and imagined events as they changed over time. Memories of real events were richer than memories of imagined events, and memories of recent events were richer than of events from a week earlier. These differences interacted such that memories of real events performed in week 1 were very similar to memories of events that were imagined in week 2.

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For example, we tend to assume that if we recollect an autobiographical event, the event actually occurred. However, research on memory, and in particular on children's memory, over the past decade has shown that this event is not necessarily the case. In some cases, repeated misinformation may distort recollection and allow remembrance of details or nuances that were not actually present in the original event (see Garry, Loftus, & Brown, 1994, for a recent review). In a more extreme form, research suggests that both children and adults may experience false memories wherein imagined or intensively thought about events that never happened at all are experienced as real upon subsequent recollection (Ceci, Huffman, Smith, & Loftus, 1994; Ceci, Loftus, Leichtman, & Bruck, 1994; Garry & Loftus, 1994).

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We exposed college students to suggestive materials in order to lead them to believe that, as children, they had a negative experience at Disneyland involving the Pluto character. A sizable minority of subjects developed a false belief or memory that Pluto had uncomfortably licked their ear. Suggestions about a positive experience with Pluto led to even greater acceptance of a lovable earlicking episode. False beliefs and memories had repercussions; those seduced by the bad suggestions were not willing to pay as much for a Pluto souvenir.

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There are hints in the literature suggesting that negative ideas about one's own memory are associated with elevated suggestibility levels and an enhanced susceptibility to false recollections. People who judge their own memory as very poor because they suffer from the "memory distrust syndrome" are thought to be especially prone to memory distortions (Gudjonson & MacKeith, 1982).

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In addition, Clancy et al. found that false recall and recognition were associated with measures of hypnotic suggestibility, depressive symptoms, and schizotypic features (such as magical ideation and absorption). Studies reveal that false memories are associated with a number of other psychological disorders. For example, false memories have been linked to dissociative symptoms (Clancy, Schacter, McNally, & Pitman, 2000; Winograd, Peluso, & Glover, 1998), symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (Bremner, Shobe, & Kihlstrom, 2000), and symptoms of schizophrenia (Brebion et al., 2000). False memories have also been associated with the ability to experience vivid visual imagery when recalling events.

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A question related to this research is whether shifting languages between encoding and retrieval affects the generation of false memories. In the case of veridical bilingual memory, information processing one language has been found to either assist or hinder the processing and recall of translation equivalents, depending on the task (Altarriba, 2000). It is also possible that changing language from encoding to retrieval might not affect the magnitude of false memories, just as postevent misinformation presented to Spanish-English bilinguals had comparable detrimental effects in recognition accuracy across and within language (Shaw, Garcia, & Robles, 1997).

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Incorrect responses may have resulted from conformity rather than from internalization of the incorrect information. Socially induced memory distortion has been investigated in experiments on collaborative remembering (e.g., Basden, Basden, Bryner, & thomas, 1997; Basden, Basden, Thomas, & Souphasith, 1998; Weldon & Bellinger, 1997). In these experiments, rather than having another person introduce the false information, the frequency of memory errors was compared when social influence was present or absent.

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They asked subjects to read detailed descriptions of three genuine childhood events and one false event about getting lost in a shopping mall. With the help of subjects' family members, the researchers packed the "Lost in the mall" description with idiosyncratic details, such as the subject's favorite candy and the local mall they visited as a child. After working at remembering the event, approximately 25% of subjects reported memories for the false experience.

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The investigation of false memory, or recollecting an event that never occurred, has been well documented. False memory has been most extensively studied using a paradigm first introduced by Deese (1959) and later replicated and extended by Roediger and McDermott (1995). In the standard DRM task, participants are presented with lists of words (e.g., hot, snow, warm, winter, ice, wet, frigid, chilly, heat, weather, freeze, air, shiver, Arctic, frost) that are all associated with a critical, nonpresented word or lure (e.g., cold). The typical finding is that participants produce high levels of false memory to critical lures.

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