30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011
Loftus’ false memories
Thoughts & Language
On the campaign trail to become the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, Hillary Clinton recalled her 1996 visit to Bosnia: ’I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony... but instead we just ran with our heads down.’ In fact, photographs of the visit show there was no sniper fire and the usual runway ceremony had taken place. Clinton admitted she’d made a mistake, she’d had a different memory. Experiencing a false memory in this way can happen to any of us because, far from being written in stone, our memories are like reconstructions, easily distorted and highly malleable. The pioneer in this field is the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Her seminal work involved interviewing participants about incidents from their childhood — incidents that they knew had been disclosed earlier to the research team by their parents. Among several true childhood experiences, Loftus inserted the entirely fabricated incident in which the participant had got lost in a shopping centre. Over several interviews, around a quarter of the participants came to believe that this imaginary event had really occurred, to the extent that they embellished the account with details from their own ’memory’.
Memories are highly malleable and easily distorted by suggestion and misinformation.
Critics argued that the shopping centre incident may actually have occurred. Perhaps the parents had forgotten or never knew, and the interviews awakened in the participants a real memory of a real incident. Loftus devised the perfect rebuttal. She and her colleagues recreated their shopping centre study but this time numerous participants recalled the time they met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland — an event that couldn’t possibly have happened because Bugs is a Warner Brothers’ character.
THE PLACEBO EFFECT
Our memories are so fragile and suggestible that even the way we’re asked a question can alter our precise recollection.