Do False Memories Look Real?

Do False Memories Look Real? Evidence That People Struggle to Identify Rich False Memories of Committing Crime and Other Emotional Events

Journal: Frontiers in Psychology;


Dr Julia Shaw, Psychology and Language Sciences, University College London


Frontiers in Psychology is the largest journal in its field, publishing rigorously peer-reviewed research across the psychological sciences, from clinical research to cognitive science, from perception to consciousness, from imaging studies to human factors, and from animal cognition to social psychology.


Memory is not as reliable as commonly thought:


Two studies examined whether people could identify rich false memories. Each participant in both studies was presented with two videos, one of a person recalling a true emotional memory, and one of the same person recalling a false memory. These videos were filmed during a study which involved implanting rich false memories (Shaw and Porter, 2015). The false memories in the videos either involved committing a crime (assault, or assault with a weapon) or other highly emotional events (animal attack, or losing a large sum of money) during adolescence. In study 1, participants (n = 124) were no better than chance at accurately classifying false memories (61.29% accurate), or false memories of committing crime (53.33% accurate). In study 2, participants (n = 82) were randomly assigned to one of three conditions, where they only had access to the (i) audio account of the memory with no video, (ii) video account with no audio, or (iii) the full audio-visual accounts. False memories were classified correctly by 32.14% of the audio-only group, 45.45% of the video-only group, and 53.13% of the audio-visual group. This research provides evidence that naïve judges are not able to reliably identify false memories of emotional or criminal events, or differentiate true from false memories. These findings are likely to be of particular interest to those working in legal and criminal justice settings.


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