Half of us likely to believe events that never happened

Posted on December 15, 2016

Photo: flickr

Remember that time at school when you played a prank on your math teacher? The one with the curly hair and the pink-rimmed glasses? No? If you were told the story a few times, you might - even if it never happened.

There’s a new discovery in a recent study that if we are repeatedly told about a fictitious autobiographical event, more than 50% of us are likely to believe we experienced it, and some of us may even elaborate on what happened.

Study co-author Dr. Kimberley Wade, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, and colleagues recently published their findings in the journal Memory.

Memory, the process by which the brain stores and retrieves information and past experiences. It helps us to form relationships, learn, plan, make decisions, and develop an overall sense of identity.

Memory recall is not a simple, flawless process. Most researchers agree that retrieving memories involves some degree of reconstruction – that is, memories can be pieced together through imagination, beliefs, social context and even suggestions from other people.

People can create “false memories” due to the implication of having a reconstructive and flexible memory system – people can develop rich and coherent autobiographical memories of entire events that never happened.

Dr. Wade and colleagues set out to get a better idea of the proportion of people who are susceptible to creating false memories.
Eight studies that used ‘memory implantation’- whereby participants had false autobiographical events suggested to them, such as taking a ride on a hot air balloon as a child, or causing trouble at a wedding were analysed.

Such suggestions were repeated to participants, and the suggestive techniques involved narratives and/or photos of the fictitious events.

There are 423 participants, of whom 53% of them showed some degree of belief that they had experienced the false events.
Out of these subjects, more than 30% claimed that they ‘remembered’ the fictitious events, describing what occurred and even adding details. A further 23% showed that they accepted the fictitious events and believed they actually occurred.
The limitations of the study includes the difficulty in ruling out possibility of some subjects who created false memories may have actually retrieved genuine memories of events that were suggested to them, such as the hot air balloon ride, though such cases are rare.

Dr. Wade adds that the results raise questions about the validity of memories recalled in a wide range of areas, including in criminal investigations, court rooms, and counseling.

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Source material from Medical News Today

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