The past exists only in our minds, so it’s important to know that our memories are trustworthy and loyal to reality. However, a new study in the journal Memory reveals that more than half of people are liable to believing in events that never happened, and that suggestive techniques can easily warp our knowledge of our own personal histories, implanting false recollections into our consciousness.
This finding could have major implications in numerous settings, raising questions over the reliability of statements given by witnesses when testifying in court, while also underlining the power that the media has to alter people’s perception of the world.
To conduct their research, the team gathered transcripts from eight previous studies into memory implantation techniques. In these papers, scientists attempted to trick a total of 423 participants into believing in fake events, by presenting them with descriptions of childhood episodes that had been provided by close relatives, one of which was a complete fabrication.
Among the phony facts were things like taking a trip in a hot-air balloon and spilling a bowl of punch over the parents of the bride at a wedding. Participants were then encouraged to recollect and relive the experiences that had just been described to them.
The study authors developed a scale for rating these transcripts, which judged them on seven different criteria: “Accepting the suggestion, elaboration beyond the suggestion, imagery, coherence, emotion, memory statements, and not rejecting the suggestion.”
In total, 30.4 percent of participants were judged to have developed “fake memories” of these events, meaning they were actually able to recall them. A further 23 percent were classified as having believed that the event occurred, even though they couldn’t actually remember it.
Thus, more than half of those who took part in the studies were successfully tricked into believing a falsity about their own lives, merely by being told that it occurred.
Aside from the many worrying legal, political and social consequences that may result from such malleable memories, the results of this study are also somewhat alarming on an existential plane. Given that our autobiographical recollections are the bedrock of our identities, the prospect that these reminiscences might have been tampered with suggests we may not know ourselves quite as well as we think.