False memories

I posted just a brief link last week to a pretty cool Slate feature that tried to see if they could implant false political memories in readers.  In my case, the false item was about a “controversial” Obama handshake with Iran’s nutty leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The feature also contained 3 real items to see if you could pick out which one was false.  In a short quiz, I got a little too smart by half, and thought that one of the details they had about the Terry Shiavo case was false (it was true), and actually semi-guessed that the Ahmainejad handshake was true, despite having no clear memories.  I didn’t make up a new memory, I just figured this was one of the sorts of things they talked about on Fox news for a couple days that had only peripherally invaded my consciousness.

Anyway, Will Saletan has followed that up with a really interesting run-down on the research about how successful psychologists have been in implanting truly false memories.  It only works for a minority of subjects, but its a substantial enough minority that it certainly calls into question “recovered memories” of abuse, so often used in molestation trials.  What I really love about this story is that it shows great social science in action.  Every time Elizabeth Loftus published a false memory experiment and people criticized it for some shortcoming, she came up with a new experiment which successfully addressed the shortcoming.  Here’s a terrific example:

Critics protested that Loftus still hadn’t proved the memories were fake. So she raised the ante. She persuaded 16 percent of a study population that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. In a follow-up experiment, researchers sold the same memory to 36 percent of subjects.  This was impossible, since Bugs belonged to Warner Bros., not Disney. When critics complained that the Bugs memory wasn’t abusive, Loftus obliged them again. Her team convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that on a visit to Disneyland, a drug-addled Pluto character had licked their ears.

I’ve long been intrigued by the fallibility of memory.  My favorite example concerns an event that happened in my family about 25 years ago.  I’m going to have to be somewhat vague so as to protect the reputation of certain male parental relations, but I’ll simply say that my dad engaged in a particularly memorable negative action in an argument with my sister (okay, he physically expressed displeasure with a Christmas gift).  My mom, my sister, her boyfriend/future husband, and I were all there.  A good 15 years after the even we all shared our reminiscences of it at a family dinner.  The amazing thing was that we all remembered this incredibly memorable event in surprisingly different and clearly incompatible ways.   I wouldn’t say any of had “false memories” but there’s no way more than one of us actually had a fully “accurate memory.”  And, naturally, each of us was convinced that we were right and the others were wrong.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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