False Memories (PSYC1011)

Schema Theory

Schema Theory is a system of beliefs and expectations; a mental structure of pre-conceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, and a system of organizing and perceiving new information.

Schemas influence memories similarly to semantic networks; schemas tend to remain unchanged in the face of new information, meaning that new information is often distorted to fit into the framework.

This means that we're more likely to notice and register (and better encode/more easily retrieve) information that does fit into the schema, and discard/distort anything that doesn't.

Eyewitness Influence of Information

Loftus & Palmer's 1974 study aimed to investigate whether or not eyewitness's memories are susceptible to alteration by being provided with new information.

They ran a study on car crashes, showing subjects 7 videos and changing the phrasing of the question "at what speed was the car travelling when they x with each other". They found that more severe verbs led the participant to estimate a higher speed:

  • Smashed: 40.8 miles per hour
  • Collided: 39.3 miles per hour
  • Bumped: 38.1 miles per hour
  • Hit: 34.2 miles per hour
  • Contacted: 31.8 miles per hour

Memory involves reconstructing a scene, and our image of the scene can be altered by labels/questions - in some cases without our knowledge, other times we compensate for new information by consciously adjusting our perception to align with it.

Boon & Davies

Boon and Davies' 1987 study (Rumors Greatly Exaggerated: Allport and Postman's Apocryphal Study) showed participants one of three images:

  • Two white men; A with knife
  • Two white men; B with knife
  • One black man, 1 white man; White with knife

The participants were then given two cued tests, either:

  • Recall then Recognition
  • Recognition then Recall

The recognition test was a photo where the men with the knives were either correct or swapped around.

They found that participants who were given the recognition test first were more likely to reverse the white/black image than the white/white image.

From this they couldn't conclude much concretely, except that perhaps racial stereotypes have a pervasive effect in the form of our schemas.

A discussion of Allport and Postman's 1945/1947 tests (this was incorrectly attributed to them in the psych notes).

Lost in the Mall Technique

Elizabeth Loftus' Lost in the Mall Technique is a memory implant experiment used to demonstrate that confabulations can be created through suggestions made to experimental subjects. It was developed as support for the claim that it is possible to implant entirely false memories in people.

The participant would be given 4 stories (supposedly all by family members/friends) about something that happened to them when they were a child, and told to recall as much as they could about the scene, or to say if they couldn't remember it. 1 of the 4 stories would be a fake story:

"According to the narrative the person was lost for an extended period of time before finally being rescued by an elderly person and reunited with his or her family. The narrative was based upon actual family shopping trips and incorporated plausible details provided by the relative such as the name of the mall they would usually go to when the person was a child and who would be likely to be present when they went shopping."

Afterwards the participants filled in booklets about their memories of the stories, and answer interviews. 25% of the participants remembered the false event, even if it was described less clearly and with fewer words than the real events. 5/24 participants failed to identify the fake event correctly.

The Lost in the Mall technique is generally accepted as a memory implantation study that is useful for investigating the effect of suggestions on memory.

Vividness Heuristic

If we imagine something that has happened to us, and something that might we can compare how vividly we're imagining them to get a rule of thumb idea about which is real.

Imagination Inflation

Imagination inflation is the phenomenon whereby imagining an event that didn't happen increases confidence that it did occur.

In 1996 Loftus, Garry, Manning and Sherman conducted the original study to examine what imaging false events would do to memory (without factors of previous studies - e.g. without social pressure or to make reports be consistent with a family members').

An example of this study is to ask participants to rate 40 items on a scale of likelihood of having happened to you previously, and then do the same thing 2 weeks later and compare the ratings. Results below confirm the findings:


Identification of Things in the Real World

Misidentification of Rapists - Cotton and Thompson

Identification memory for strangers is highly unreliable prone to error because our memory for faces is poor.

Jennifer Thompson was raped and studied the face of her rapist. She identified Ronald Cotton from a lineup and confirmed twice that he was her rapist. 10.5 years later he was exonerated when DNA evidence proved he wasn't the rapist - the two later joined forces to spread information about eyewitness fallibility.