Half of people ‘remember’ fake facts that never happened

A new study casts some doubt on something very personal: our memories.

Image credits: wesleynitsckie.

About one in two people are highly prone to ‘remembering’ events that never happened, researchers from the University of Warwick have found. Dr Kimberley Wade in the Department of Psychology proved that if people are told about a completely fictitious event from “their lives,” they start to imagine it, and about half of people are willing to accept it as reality.

She and her colleagues recruited 400 participants, asking them to “recall” several different types of false memories – such as taking a childhood hot air balloon ride, playing a prank on a teacher, or creating havoc at a family wedding. To some extent, more than 50% of them claimed they remember it – 30% of participants appeared to fully ‘remember’ the event while 23% showed signs that they accepted the suggested event to some degree.

The study brings into question some instances of witness testimony and forensic investigations, but also sheds some light on therapy practices. Wade comments:

“We know that many factors affect the creation of false beliefs and memories — such as asking a person to repeatedly imagine a fake event or to view photos to “jog” their memory. But we don’t fully understand how all these factors interact. Large-scale studies like our mega-analysis move us a little bit closer.

“The finding that a large portion of people are prone to developing false beliefs is important. We know from other research that distorted beliefs can influence people’s behaviours, intentions and attitudes.”

This could also be significant for groups of people, where memories are arguably even more susceptible to this kind of effect.

Journal Reference: Alan Scoboria, Kimberley A. Wade, D. Stephen Lindsay, Tanjeem Azad, Deryn Strange, James Ost, Ira E. Hyman. A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies. Memory, 2016; 1 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2016.1260747

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