False Memories

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False Memory is the phenomenon in which a person believes that he or she remembers events that have not actually occurred (Loftus, 1997).

False Memory Syndrome is the phenomenon in which a person believes that he or she remembers traumatic, usually sexually abusive events that have not actually occurred. The term was coined in 1992 by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in an attempt to describe the theory that adults who recall instances of sexual abuse from their childhood may actually be inaccurately remembering information, or even completely inventing an event that never took place (Freyd, 1992).


Theoretical Explanations

Explaining Uncomfortable Feelings: The majority of literature on and concern about False Memory Syndrome began as a response to convictions of supposedly innocent people who were accused by their now grown children of sexual abuse in their childhood (Freyd, 1992). Support for the idea of False Memory Syndrome suggests that a small, false creation in memory can easily be elaborated upon and is very difficult to remove and even quite difficult for that person to realize it is a false creation after a short time. “Once someone has constructed a memory, he comes to believe it himself.” (Pendergrast, 1996). It is suggested that false memories are created to explain small things, such as a possible uncomfortable feeling at family reunions. The small seed could be that perhaps one of the family members did something to cause that uncomfortable feeling, when the reality is that nobody did anything. That false creation could then grow into thinking an uncle sexually abused that person as a child and that could lead to a possible legal accusation (Pendergrast, 1996).

The Therapist’s Role: The second major theory about why false memories exist is that they are generated through coaxing by a therapist. Unlike in the previous explanation in which the individual is personally responsible for creating the false memories, this explanation requires the presence of a second person, who is usually a therapist or clinician. One psychiatrist described the phenomenon as, “a way of absolving yourself for screwing up by shifting the blame to your infancy when you can’t be blamed for anything. From these gymnastics, by which ‘therapists’ make their money, the adult emerges guilt-free.” (Holdsworth, 1998). The false memories, according to this explanation, are created in an attempt to reduce feelings of distress. They are formed by creating a small notion in the client’s mind that something may actually have happened in the past that is making them feel the way they do. After several more sessions of therapy, that notion develops into certainty and the client begins to have the ability to vividly imagine the event from their past, despite the fact that it never occurred. In short, this explanation suggests that therapists make their patients feel better and, thus, get paid, by explaining their dysfunction as a result of something in their childhood. Clearly, if this childhood event is actually implanted in the memory and involves some form of abuse, the false memory can have tremendous ramifications.

On the Lighter Side: As researcher Elizabeth Loftus points out, false memories are relatively simple to create and are not always detrimental. In fact, it has been demonstrated that advertisers use this simple idea in an attempt to sell their product or promote their service (Braun, 2002). In one study, Loftus and her colleagues demonstrated a clear connection between false memories and increased sales. By creating false, yet nostalgic, memories, promoters working for Disneyland were actually able to increase the number of tickets they sold to the park. Whether or not people had actually ever been to Disneyland before did not matter, as they could picture themselves doing the things pictured in the advertisements. All that mattered was their ability to create this memory in their minds, which was proven to be a simple task, (Braun, 2002).

Common Variables in Research

Because so much of the focus and concern about False Memory Syndrome has to do with childhood abuse of some nature, direct ethical studies are nearly impossible. Instead, researchers commonly use rather mundane pieces of memory to determine if, in fact, the formation and belief in false memories is plausible (Loftus, 1997). Attempted implanted memories have included: getting lost in a shopping mall, a trip to Disneyland, foods eaten at given occasions, grades received during elementary school, and many others (Braun, 2002). The independent variables commonly used are attempts at implanting a false memory. Either it is attempted, or it is not. That is then used to measure the dependent variable, which is how strongly the memory becomes and holds.

Evidence Presented

Experiment 1: Loftus, 1997, conducted a study to examine the existence of pathways through which false memories may be instilled. The first task of the experimenters was to invent a possible pseudomemory that would not cause the participants undue emotional stress. With that in mind, the research team decided on trying to implant the specific memory of being lost in a shopping mall at around age five.

Method: Loftus and her associates gathered a random sampling of 24 individuals, ranging in age from 18 years to 53 years. With the aid of a close relative, researchers assembled booklets for each participant describing (in single paragraphs) three true events from their childhood, as well as the false event created by the experimenters. The relatives each confirmed that their corresponding participants had not actually been lost in a shopping mall around age five. Participants were then instructed to read each story in the booklet. After reading the stories, they were instructed to write down what they remembered about each of the events, and to write, “I do not remember this” if they could not recall a particular event. In two follow-up interviews (each was several weeks after the initial test and then after the other), participants were told that the researchers were interested in how much detail they could remember and in how their memories compared with those of their relative. The event paragraphs were not directly presented again, but portions were provided as retrieval cues (Loftus, 1997).

Results: Of the 72 true events presented to the 24 participants, 49 of them were able to have something recalled about them. That held true for the initial interview as well as each of the follow-up interviews. After reading the booklet for the first time, 7 of the 24 participants remembered either partially or fully the false event that was presented. In the two follow-up interviews, 6 of the 24 participants continued to claim that they remembered the false event. This paradigm demonstrated a pathway through which false memories could be instilled. This study provided evidence that people can be lead to remember their past in different ways, and can even be prompted to “remember” entire events that are completely fictitious (Loftus, 1997).

Experiment 2: In another study, Loftus, Braun, and Ellis, 2002, sought to further demonstrate the ability to implant false memories in peoples’ minds. Specifically, this study was aimed at determining whether false information in advertising about childhood experiences could make consumers believe that those events actually happened to them.

Method: The experimenters gathered a sampling of 167 psychology undergraduates. 104 participants were female and 63 were male. Participants took a Life-Events Inventory survey (LEI) and were screened with this data. Any participants who reported having been to a Six Flags park were eliminated from the study. Also, the participants all reported having been to Disneyland before the age of ten. Of the remaining participants, they were randomly assigned to three conditions. Participants were either in the ad group which suggested they had shaken hands with Bugs Bunny in Disneyland, the ad group which suggested they had shaken hands with Ariel (the Little Mermaid), or the ad group which simply offered information about Disneyland, but did not suggest any autobiographical occurrences. The non-autobiographical group served as the control, while the other two served as variable groups. It was impossible for any of the participants to have ever met Bugs Bunny or Ariel at Disneyland before they were ten-years-old as Bugs Bunny has never been a character at Disneyland and Ariel was not yet introduced as a Disney character at that time. Participants were then given a list of characters with Bugs Bunny and Ariel consistently appearing in the same places on every list. Participants were asked, on an 8-point scale, with 8 indicating greatest confidence, to indicate with what confidence they had seen each of the characters during their visit to Disneyland. They were then asked, on a separate list, to place an “X” next to the characters they were confident they had actually shaken hands with (Braun, 2002).

Results: The first measure was whether or not the participants remembered seeing the two impossible characters. A t-test comparing the results of the three groups demonstrated that participants in the Bugs Bunny ad group reported with greater confidence that they had seen Bugs Bunny during their visit. With Ariel, no group showed a significantly greater confidence, though all three groups had participants who reported having seen her. The second measure was whether or not the participants remembered shaking hands with the impossible characters. Here, 16% of participants in the Bugs Bunny ad group reported that they had met Bugs Bunny, while 7% in each of the other groups reported having met him. Likewise, 7% of participants in the Ariel ad group reported having met Ariel, while 0% in the Bugs Bunny ad group reported having met Ariel, and only 4% in the non-autobiographical group reported having met her. This study provided empirical evidence that autobiographically focused advertising can make even impossible events seem more likely to have happened to consumers as children (Braun, 2002).

Alternative Explanations

The debate over the validity of False Memory Syndrome is by no means complete. Rather, there is an opposing side to the argument that offers their fair share of evidence and research as well. This alternative explanation is Memory Repression.

Memory Repression: Memory repression refers to the process by which people bury memories of painful or traumatic experiences in order to block the anxiety the memories evoke (Holdsworth, 1998). This repression may either lead to some form of lifelong impairment or to the individual leading a normal, otherwise well-adjusted life. The argument against False Memory Syndrome comes in when those memories resurface due to some factor, either external or internal. While supporters of False Memory Syndrome hold the idea that therapists sometimes implant fictitious events into the memories of their clients, supporters of Memory Suppression hold the idea that Therapists merely serve as an external factor in resurfacing repressed memories (Holdsworth, 1998). It is suggested that Memory Repression is an evolutionary tool designed to allow people to reduce the amount of stress in their lives by pushing painful or stressful memories to the backs of their minds. On that note, with the proper cues, these repressed memories are relatively easy to be retrieved (Smith, 2008). A study was conducted in 1987 with 53 women involved in an out-patient short-term therapy group for incest survivors. Of these interviewed women, 64% reported experiencing some degree of memory loss, while 28% reported severe memory impairment. Of that 28%, 75% of the women reported experiencing a complete lack of recall for extended periods of time (Holdsworth, 1998). It must be noted, however, that this was not a true experiment.


Braun, K.A., Ellis, R., Loftus, E.F., 2002. Make my memory: How advertising can change our memories of the past. Psychology & Marketing, Jan 2002, Vol. 19, No. 1, pgs. 1-23.

Freyd, P., 1992. Memory and Reality. Website of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. http://www.fmsfonline.org/

Holdsworth, L., 1998. Is It Repressed Memory with Delayed Recall or is It False Memory Syndrome? The Controversy and Its Potential Legal Implications. Law and Psychology Review, Spring 1998, Volume 22, The University of Alabama School of Law, pgs. 103-115.

Loftus, E.F., 1997. Creating False Memories. Scientific American, September 1997, Vol. 277, No. 3, pgs. 70-75.

Pendergrast, M., 1996. Victims of Memory: Sex Abuse Accusations and Shattered Lives. How to Believe the Unbelievable, Ch. 3, pg. 119-149.

Smith, S. and Moynan, S., 2008. Forgetting and Recovering the Unforgettable. Psychological Science, May 2008, Vol. 19, Iss. 5, pgs. 462-468.

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