False Memories—The Power of Suggestibility


What we sense, what we perceive, what is tangible, is what is real. Humans rely on their sensory organs to gather physical data to turn into interpretable information. We use this data to make sense of the world and to ground ourselves in it. Said information, however, isn’t as stable or dependable as everyone thinks. Is forgetfulness the only crutch we face for what is essentially a foolproof system of memory? No.

More often than not, it’s our own trusty brain that dupes us. It creates false memories.


What are false memories?

False memories are recollections that are altered or distorted versions of the actual series of events. In some cases, people even remember events that have never occurred. These false memories can range from simple misremembering to the warping or creation of highly emotional or traumatic events. 

Highly emotional memories—false or otherwise—may be vivid, intense, and detail-rich. Simple misremembering can be compared to the mechanism that plays into the formation of dreams— different memories merging to create new experiences. 

However, there is no definitive way of discerning a false memory from a real one. This is primarily because memories— whether altered or real— are very deeply planted and held in high regard by ourselves, for obvious reasons. The basic mechanisms that go into the creation of both types of memories are also essentially the same. 


Types of False memories

  • Confabulation in brain disease or Memory disorders:

Confabulation is a type of memory error in which gaps in a person’s memory is unconsciously filled with fabricated, misinterpreted, or distorted information.

People suffering from confabulations are prone to memory distortions, such as experiencing detailed and vivid recollections of episodic events that have never been encountered (i.e., false memories). The basis for the misremembered information usually is found in the past or current experiences and thoughts of the person.

Confabulation is caused by memory disorders like Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, brain injuries, and certain psychiatric conditions.


  • The Misinformation effect:

When we recall a memory, we have to piece it back together from pieces of information that exist in our minds. The information that we’ve learned since the event will be added to fill in memory gaps. For example, an experiment involved asking people if they had seen ‘the’ no parking sign rather than ‘a’ no parking sign.

The ‘the’ in the question provided the respondent with a presupposition that there was a no parking sign present at the scene. This presupposition increased the number of people responding that they had indeed seen the sign.


The phenomenon of multiple people sharing the same false memories is called the Mandela effect. The name comes from Nelson Mandela, who was a political activist in Africa. Thousands of people claim to remember him dying in prison in the 1980s when, in reality, he was released from prison and went on to be the President of South Africa for five years. He eventually died in 2013.

Another example is when a debate ensued on memories of The Berenstain Bears’ name being spelt Berenstein Bears. Scientists believe that this effect occurs due to specific social and cognitive factors like false news reports and misleading photographs, amongst other things, that reinforce false memories.


Why do they occur?

Human memories are quite malleable; a person’s memory can be exceptional, but they are still susceptible to misremembering without even realising it. The seed planting a false memory could either be from the source—misinformation—or from ourselves, second-guessing details. 

The reason for its occurrence varies from situation to situation; psychologists have been conducting experiments with different conditions and variables to map out each path.

Taking this research spanning decades, some factors that may contribute to the existence of a false memory are as follows:

  • Similarity: When a current event stirs up a similar previous memory, it is easy to confuse or interchange details and remember this new version of events from then on.


  • Sleep Deprivation and Emotions: Sleep deprivation inhibits human functioning in many ways; its impact on memory is quite significant. An emotional event, especially involving stress and fear, also severely clouds the intake and retention of accurate information; like in the case of a robbery.


  • Inference through context: If a person has preconceived notions, previously existing correlating knowledge, or any such bias, they will try to fill in blanks in a story with this information. The Deese–Roediger–McDermott (DRM) paradigm is a simple but effective procedure to explain this. A list of words coming under one category is read out to subjects (For example, “sweet”, “juice”, “ripe”, “apple”, “peel”, “mango”, and other such related words), and they are asked to recall the words. More often than not, the trigger word—in this case, “fruit”—makes its way into the recalled words despite having not been on the list. We essentially create assumptions that integrate themselves into the actual memory, creating a false interpretation.

    This phenomenon plays out over trying to remember an event after a certain period of time, too; humans only recall the gist—their shaky personal interpretation—of the actual event, which is highly vulnerable to change.


  • Traumatic events: People adapting avoidant behaviours may end up creating false memories to fill in gaps in memories and to prevent access to traumatic experiences.


History and Research Conducted

Studying memory distortion was reportedly done first by psychologist Hugo Münsterberg in the 1900s on a murder case, where despite having an alibi, the accused confessed and was sentenced to death. Back then, however, Münsterberg’s idea wasn’t taken seriously. Real research on this only began later, starting with the work of Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet.

In 1974, psychologists Elizabeth Loftus—known for her work in this field—and John Palmer conducted two studies to investigate the effects of language on the development of false memories. 

In the first study, 45 participants watched different videos of a car accident, with each video showing collisions at different speeds. Afterwards, they filled out a survey asking what the viewer estimated the speed of the car was when they smashed into each other. For each survey, however, they changed the keyword to describe the collision, with variations including “smashed”, “bumped”, “hit”, or “contacted”. What they observed was how changing this one word affected the participants’ answers.

In the second experiment, too, they showed participants videos of car accidents but changed the questions of the follow-up survey. 150 participants were divided into three groups, with the first two groups having the same question as that of the first study; only the key adjective used for the questionnaire was different. One group was given “smashed” and the other, “hit”.

The final group, however, was not just asked this; in addition, the participants were asked if they had seen any broken glass. There was no broken glass in the video, but the question, framed as if it were a solid fact overlooked by the viewer, was enough to affirm and plant the false piece of information.

The responses to this question had shown that the difference between whether the broken glass was recalled or not heavily relied on the verb used. It was observed that more participants in the “smashed” group declared that there was broken glass. These subtle attributes led to a misconstruction of their memory recall and supported the hypothesis of the existence of false memories.

This experiment can be replicated in different contexts (for example, a sports match) and tweaked according to the scenario presented to get results that produce false memories.

Hundreds of such experiments— creating word lists of a certain topic, purposely feeding false details, staging an emotional event, feeding preconceived notions, amongst others— have been conducted, all revealing cracks in what we assumed is a solid armour of human memory. Their effects on a regular life and in serious cases have been recorded over the years, proving to be useful data to understand the phenomenon further. All this research has led to the formation of the skeleton theory and construction hypothesis, amongst other propositions.

Loftus has conducted a multitude of experiments focusing on this phenomenon along with different associates (Pickrell, Miller and Burns, to name a few). They have all yielded highly interesting and insightful data that has helped understand the occurrence of false memories better. 


False memories and False convictions

It has been proposed that people with a trauma history or trauma symptoms may be particularly vulnerable to producing false memories when exposed to information related to their knowledge base. In clinical settings, individuals with PTSD or depression may seek an explanation for their complaints, and therapists might ask them to retrieve childhood memories. This may serve as fertile ground for false memories of childhood sexual abuse, for example, which might lead to false accusations.

Criminal proceedings are usually based on the statements of the alleged victims due to the lack of physical evidence. The testimonies may consist of memory aberrations, which could cause false accusations and wrongful convictions.

For example, In 1983, Judy Johnson, mother of one of the Manhattan Beach, California, preschool’s young students, reported to the police that McMartin teacher Ray Buckey had sodomised her son. His mother and administrator, Peggy Buckey, was also accused of sexually assaulting children. Several hundred children were then interviewed by the Children’s Institute International (A Los Angeles-based abuse therapy clinic). 

During investigations of the allegations, the interviewing techniques were highly suggestive and invited children to pretend or speculate about supposed events. In 1990, these convictions were overturned as it was judged that therapists had unintentionally implanted false memories in the preschoolers’ minds. The case was closed, with all charges against Ray Buckey being dismissed. He had been jailed for five years without ever being convicted of committing any crime. Meanwhile, accuser Judy Johson was diagnosed and hospitalised for acute paranoid schizophrenia in 1986 and died before the final hearing. 

Hence, several studies suggest that memories can easily be changed around, and sometimes eyewitness testimonies are not as reliable as many believe.


False Memories in Pop Culture

False Memory Syndrome has become so popular that several television shows and movies have been made about the phenomenon. The Netflix series The Sinner is based on the idea of recovering forgotten memories. Inception, a science fiction film, deals with the concept of implanting ideas in sleeping individuals. Several conspiracy theorists believe that The Mandela Effect is proof of existing alternate universes. 

Reports of several people having distorted memories of being abducted by aliens are proof of the integral impact false memories continue to have on our lives. The existence of this phenomenon doesn’t mean that we can’t trust our instincts, though— in most cases, it’s quite normal to have misremembered or overlooked a detail or event. However, it conveys the need to verify what’s in front of us, to take more data into account, and scrutinise it; it’s the best way to reduce the formation of a false memory.


Sources: Psychology Today, verywellmind.com, Psychologist World, frontiersin.org, PubMed, Wikipedia(Peggy Buckey case), ncbi.nlm.nih.gov  


Written by Abha Deo and Ishita Gaur for MTTN

Edited by Rushil Dalal for MTTN

Featured Image from husson.edu

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