Post No.: 0803
We can remember things that didn’t happen at all, or remember things differently from the way they really were. Memories are a bit like a Wikipedia page – you can go there and alter them, and so can other people. Even entire false memories can be planted deliberately by another agent, or just unwittingly, never mind just the small details – maybe not about something that happened yesterday but when you were young and the recall is fuzzy.
Suggestion, misinformation, casting doubt, forming associations, comparing with other people’s accounts, and leading questions, are examples of ways how false memories can be planted. And it can be difficult to tell the difference between a true and false memory (not talking about a knowing lie here but a genuine belief that a false memory is true) because if we believe something to be true then it is true to us; and our brain scans, emotions and physiology will react in exactly the same way as with anything else we believe to be true – hence lie detectors won’t flag false or planted memories that we believe are as true as our real name.
It may never have happened in reality but in your mind it happened hence the memory feels real to you – you experienced and re-experience it via the images and voices that are played and replayed every time you ‘recollect’ the event, thus a false or planted memory isn’t always inferior or less vivid than any other memory you hold. Like visual illusions (e.g. finding faces or voices within random noise), we’re completely unaware of having made an interpretation – it just happens and these memory illusions can feel just as real as actual past experiences. Illusory memories can even potentially cause PTSD.
The vast majority of the time we can reliably label a false memory as just pure imagination, but illusions can affect and occasionally successfully fool any of our senses (visual, auditory, etc.), as they can, in turn, our memories. Planted memories can also persist as long as evocations of true events.
With consideration for the ethics, planting positive false memories could be therapeutically useful though, like a happy experience with fruit as a young child.
The planting of false nostalgic memories was demonstrated in an experiment that asked if people could remember a list of old television shows, where some made-up ones were interspersed between real ones. With the help of some suggestion, some people will end up ‘remembering’ some of the made-up shows. What improves the effect is always starting with a few real ones first to build a momentum of ‘yeses’, or always returning to a couple of real ones whenever someone doesn’t recognise a made-up one. Stating that ‘the smarter people are, the more shows they’ll remember’ will increase the effect significantly – some people will even start to embellish these false memories with apparently ‘remembered’ characters or theme tunes if suggested by the interviewer! The attractiveness of the interviewer, and exploiting people’s ‘conformity bias’ by having confederates or stooges who’ll suggest that they can recall the made-up shows, will also enhance the effect.
Even when people claim that they’re just ‘going with the flow’ even though they cannot really remember the made-up things – in mob situations, riots or other less harmless contexts, it highlights the dangers of just ‘going with the flow’ and conforming with the crowd. Salespeople often exploit the technique of building a momentum of ‘yeses’ too – you get your foot in the door with a small demand and gradually build up your demands. Implying that ‘only smart people agree with this statement or can understand this joke’ is also a common persuasion ploy. People don’t want to appear dim-witted (which would be ironic if they credulously fall for this trap <:|!) or uniquely slow to understand a joke.
However, when it comes to that planted memory experiment, these kinds of tricks might only have artificially gotten participants to pretend to remember false memories, rather than gotten them to really believe they’ve remembered them.
But it has been shown that one of the most effective ways to plant false memories in someone’s mind is to suggest that you’ve talked with their sibling and they mentioned a bunch of things that had happened to them as a little kid. Then getting them to try to remember those events from far ago too. Mix in some elements of truth to make it even more effective. A story that’s highly plausible for most people is being lost in a shopping mall as a child, hence is an easy story to plant.
There’s a high rate of false or planted memories arising from suggestive therapies, such as when attempting to recover repressed memories of childhood events. Again mixing elements of truth, like using old photographs to jog one’s memories, coupled with suggestions from a therapist, boosts the effect. We’re also more susceptible to planted memories if they’re suggested by someone whom we view as an authority figure, such as a therapist or someone who claims to know that the event definitely happened. And during situations of anxiety, like torture or when pressure is applied on us to remember an event – hence the high risk of false confessions resulting from coercive interrogations.
Fake/false news can, in essence, create planted false memories too, which become hard to ‘un-remember’ and can be embellished over time after lots of reconstructions (i.e. recalls) and the incorporation of details shared by others – hence the problem with eyewitnesses discussing their recollections together before they get their statements individually and separately down. This possibly more especially happens with fake/false news about a side or view we oppose i.e. propaganda that spreads lies about our opponents.
The malleability of our memories shows us that they’re not perfect records of experiences etched into our brains – rather, we construct memories at the time of retrieval. A true photographic memory is a myth – see Post No.: 0688. It’s unlike reading a book – it’s more like rewriting a book from fragmentary notes each time. Our memories and histories can thus be manipulated and revised and they can be affected by the planting of misinformation, along with the attitudes, feelings and goals we hold at the time of retrieval. So depending on the outcome of an event, relationship or project, we may view the journey we had as fun or terrible in hindsight. For example, even though steam vented through our ears, we swore aplenty and threatened to delete a videogame many times at the time, we can claim to have had a fun time playing it after we finally completed it! Or the laboured ending of a game post-credits can leave us a little jaded, even though we had an okay experience during the bulk of the game (a.k.a. Death Stranding). Woof!
So priming or before-the-fact judgements can bias our perceptions and interpretations before and during an event. And after-the-fact judgements can bias our recall and memories after an event.
We try to make coherent sense of the world and what’s happened, so we fill in the gaps with what we feel is logical based on our personal prior knowledge, or schemas, stereotypes and heuristics. But a bloody wound doesn’t necessarily mean that a knife caused it. Even when tracking the eyes of people through eye-tracking technology, we know that what people actually saw and what people say they saw can be wildly different i.e. ‘recalling’ parts of an event that their eyes never even crossed to see (due to the mind filling in the gaps), and not recalling parts of an event that their eyes had actually focused on.
Recognition and recall are different things. ‘Recognition’ is when you encounter something or someone and you know you’ve done so before, but apart from that you’ve got nothing. ‘Recall’, meanwhile, is when you can access the original memory of how and why you know this thing or person. This difference is why something can feel familiar but you don’t know why. Given enough information, the recall can be jogged or triggered though, and you’ll get that ‘it all came flooding back’ feeling. What was ‘on the tip of your tongue’ now suddenly bursts out. Sometimes we can’t recall something yet then when shown it again we can instantly recognise it. Yet sometimes we think we can recall something clearly but then when shown it we don’t recognise it at all!
In a crime situation, eyewitness memory is influenced by many factors, including the high stress, presence of a weapon, and even just a desire to help the police solve a crime. Leading questions or the phrasing of questions can lead to feeding planted images in other people’s minds, which are then subsequently hard to block out or ignore. How a question is phrased can most influence our answer if we’re unsure or undecided (e.g. if you’re asked, when sorting out your wardrobe, which clothes you want to dump, you’ll think about reasons why to dump them; whereas if you’re asked which ones you want to keep, you’ll think of reasons why to keep them). Response biases in self-reporting can also arise from the desires of an eyewitness to help. The demeanour of the interviewer, and the present acceptable cultural norms, are also factors. Our memories can be likened to fresh snow – once we make tracks in them, even wayward ones, it’s impossible to wipe them clean again, and these wayward tracks can be mentally retrodden again and again, thus reinforcing these erroneous reminiscences.
If we don’t know something for certain, we must know that we’re not obliged to give an answer or opinion. Yet many people feel obliged to give an answer anyway – often innocently because they wish to help. A ‘best answer’ could be massively off the mark – if you tell someone to pick the suspect from a list of faces that are presented side-by-side then they most likely will, even if the suspect isn’t actually amongst that group. They’ll pick out who they think is the best match, instead of only being satisfied with a pretty certain match, as when shown the photos individually one at a time. Here, they’ll compare each individual face in the picture to the face they have in their memories, rather than the faces relatively with each other’s in the group.
Even if you have a correct and vivid image in your mind – when you try to describe it to someone else, your language and artistic skill in drawing may not accurately describe it well enough for the other person to see exactly the same thing as you mentally do. And thus if they in turn pass on the description to another person down the chain, the whole thing can get severely corrupted like in a classic ‘Chinese whispers’/telephone game. We use subjective terms and can exaggerate; and even when attempting to be objective, things are no less accurate (e.g. ‘six foot’ can differ wildly from one person to the next).
This is all why eyewitnesses must not talk with each other before giving their statements. If eyewitnesses state exactly the same thing in exactly the same way (i.e. using the exact same adjectives and language) – to someone inexperienced, that statement may sound reliable as it would sound perfectly cross-referenced. But it could be a sign that the parties corroborated beforehand to contaminate each other’s perspectives and versions of events. This is why loose gossip is so dangerous in general.
People who are hugely confident in their retentions can be woefully inaccurate – many witnesses overstate their ability to single out the right person. The levels of confidence and emotional passion in our accounts aren’t a reliable indicator of the accuracy of our accounts.
Woof! So memory is a fragile thing and one may need to either account for or be more tolerant of people’s memory mistakes. We must also be aware that our own memories aren’t always accurate either.