How Easy It Is to Plant False Memories

Of the nearly 350 people who have now been freed from prison for crimes they did not commit by the Innocence Project and their use of DNA evidence to exonerate the wrongly convicted, about 25% of them involved people who had confessed to the crime. Why would people confess to a crime they didn’t commit? This article explains how easy it is for police to plant false memories during interrogation:

Memory’s a pretty fluid and complex thing. We don’t always remember specific details of an event well, and what details we do remember can be influenced by stuff that happened after the event itself. This is all pretty standard when it comes to memory research. What the authors of a new paper in Psychological Science just pulled off, though, takes things to a whole new level: They were able to convince study participants they had committed a crime that was completely fabricated.

From the study itself:

Participants were asked to explain what happened during each of the events in turn, after the interviewer provided some accurate cues from the caregiver questionnaire, including the city that the participant lived in and the name of a friend the participant had at the time of the alleged event (a friend who was supposedly present during the event). The interviewer also provided a number of cues, including the participant’s age at the time of the event, the season when it took place, and an indication that the caregiver was involved after the event occurred; for the true event, these were accurate cues, and for the false event, they were randomly assigned inaccurate cues. As expected, participants successfully provided an account of the true event but were unable to provide an account of the false event in the first interview … When participants had difficulty recalling the false event, the interviewer encouraged them to try to remember it, and (falsely) told them that most people can remember these kinds of memories if they try hard enough. Then, participants were told that the study was an examination of memory-retrieval methods, and they were asked to use context reinstatement and guided imagery to retrieve the memory. They also were told to practice visualization of the false event each night at home. These methods have been shown to effectively generate details that form the foundations of false memories[.]

And what that study concludes:

If you want more details, the study, which is unlocked, has them, but the key takeaway is that by the end of the third interview, after a bunch of carefully crafted nudging to do their best to remember, a full 70 percent of the students said, “Yep, I committed that crime when I was younger,” and they “volunteered … detailed false account[s]” of those crimes.

It’s a pretty stunning example of just how malleable memory is, and how open to suggestion people can be in certain circumstances.

There are other factors that make it even easier for police interrogators to get people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit as well, like the fact that they can lie to the suspects. They tell them that they have evidence that they don’t actually have, that the case against them is air tight and if they confess, it will lessen their sentence. They tell them they have their fingerprints or DNA evidence at the scene that proves they did it when they actually don’t.

Also, a lot of the people they’re interrogating have cognitive problems or mental illness, they’re often poor and uneducated and know they can’t afford an attorney to defend them. You combine all those things together and that’s how you get false confessions a staggering amount of the time.

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  • eric

    My favorite false memory vignette (I can’t remember the research author, I think it was one of Elizabeth Loftus’ collaborators or students): the scientist wants to study whether false memories look like real memories on MRIs. So he has to find subjects that have indisputably false memories to use as one of his comparative groups. He picks UFO abductees. His research concept is rejected, because its considered at least hypothetically possible that their memories are true and there is no way to verify the truth/falsity. So he decides to implant memories known to be false instead. He decides to implant memories of a person going to Disneyworld and meeting Bugs Bunny as a character. This research concept is accepted, because everyone agrees that it is less likely that Disneyworld would have coincidentally let a Bugs Bunny character into its park some years in the past, than someone has been abducted and probed by aliens.

    Now if that doesn’t tell you something about American corporate competition, I don’t know what would. :)

    (Denoument: IIRC the research was a success: he showed that the MRIs look the same. Real trauma and fake trauma are often indistinguishable in terms of cognitive impact. As far as the brain is concerned, if you remember it and believe it, that’s the only thing that matters.)

  • matty1

    I can actually see what the committee rejecting the first proposal were getting at and it isn’t about the likelihood of alien abduction. With implanted memories you know exactly what it is you are comparing wheras if you use a ‘memory’ they brought to you the origin is less clear. I agree alien abduction is highly unlikely but before the research it would not be unreasonable to think there could be differences between people who think they were abducted by aliens as a result of this kind of memory implantation and people who think they were abducted by aliens because they were on acid at the time.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Not news. You may recall my explaining the intricacies of false memory implantation to you over lunch during a skeptical convention some time ago.

  • Sastra

    eric, you may be thinking of Susan Clancy. Her book Abducted: How people come to believe they were abducted by aliens is both excellent and a fun read. Her first project was originally dealing with false memories of childhood sexual abuse. She switched to UFOs because they were less controversial in the field (and out of it.)

    One interesting finding was that most of the abductees didn’t even have memories of being abducted. They knew they’d been abducted because it made sense of their lives; it explained their symptoms. It knit their personal problems into an important narrative.

    It’s like telling people you’re testing their ability to recover memories. If the belief somehow makes us think better of ourselves it feels rather plausible.

    My friends who believe in UFOs think Clancy is closed-minded. I’m guessing they think better of themselves in contrast.

  • Anne Fenwick

    It’s really desperate that so much in our society is still run on the basis of erroneous thinking about human beings. And they say social justice isn’t an atheist or skeptical issue. These fallacies are more worthy of campaigning over than ghosts and aliens.

    PS on false memories – I loosely used a trip I went on as the basis for a novel. Among other things, I scrambled the order, added a few invented characters and some extra places. Now these inventions and alternatives feel identical to my memories of what really happened, equally vivid, clear and meaningful. It’s only because I have documentation that I could, theoretically, sort out the real from the false. And I wasn’t even trying.

  • thebookofdave

    Nice try, Reginald, but you weren’t present at that discussion. That was Bugs Bunny’s story.

  • birgerjohansson

    Ed, do you remember how you borrowed a hundred bucks from me last month?