MENZ Issues

False Memories

The intense scientific and courtroom debates in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, referred to as “the memory wars”, have largely settled now because of the large amount of research demonstrating beyond doubt that, through a variety of simple influences, children and adults can easily develop memories for events that never happened and that existing memories are vulnerable to distortion (Newman & Lindsay, 2009). A number of models and mechanisms for false memory creation have been explored. The “backward causal inference error” (e.g. Lyons et al, 2010) is especially relevant to recent discussions on MENZ about “recovered memories”. Studies expose subjects to stimuli or experiences and later ask the subjects to identify which things they remember seeing or experiencing. Many subjects will confidently, resolutely report remembering seeing or experiencing things that had been totally absent, these memories based on other stimuli or experiences that represented likely consequences of the absent ones. For example, a set of photos might be presented describing a supermarket shopping situation and one of these photos might show cans all over the floor of the supermarket. Many of the subjects will subsequently feel certain that they previously saw a new photograph showing a child pulling a can out of the bottom of a stack even though that photograph had not been previously presented. It is easy to see that this mechanism for false memory creation might come into play when someone contemplates their own life problems, aware that similar problems in others have often been attributed to childhood abuse.

The large research base that has demonstrated the fallibility of memory includes both laboratory and real-life studies. For example, in Holland a large random sample of people were interviewed about 10 months after a horrible 1992 plane crash that had killed 43 people. One of the interview questions was misleading: “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?” There was in fact no such film (camera crews did not arrive until later). Nonetheless, well over half of those interviewed claimed they had seen such a film and some went on to describe specific details of what the film had shown (Crombag et al, 1996). Similar phenomena have been observed in studies into the car crash in which Princess Diana and others were killed, the sinking of the Estonia ferry in 1995 and terrorist attacks in central London in 2005 (referenced in Sjoden et al, 2009). Sjoden et al (2009) found that 64% of Swedish students who were asked if they had seen (non-existent) video footage of the stabbing of a government minister claimed they had, 19% also provided explicit details of what they had seen, while 15% retracted their initial answer when asked to recall specific details. Although various explanations exist for such findings, they undoubtedly demonstrate that mental processing by humans commonly produces confident but false or distorted memories.

Studies have observed children confidently making claims and giving vivid experiential details of experiencing events they had never experienced, such as meeting ghosts, being caught in mouse traps, going on helicopter trips and having surgery (referenced in Sjoberg & Lindholm, 2009). In one study over 70% of the child subjects were easily brought to falsely remember being abducted by a UFO, and there was no difference in the ease with which those memories were implanted compared with false memories for a more plausible fictitious event (Otgaar et al, 2009).

Such research suggests that it would be unwise to accept readily the accuracy of “recovered” memories. That is not to say that all or most “recovered” memories or “once-forgotten, now-recalled” memories have no realistic basis, but even then it would be sensible to assume that details will have been distorted through the processes of forgetting and reconstruction of those memories. However, it is also reasonable to assume that some “recovered” memories will have a poor or nonexistent basis in fact.


Crombag, H.M., Wagenaar, W. A., & van Koppen, P. J. (1996). Crashing memories and the problem of ‘source monitoring.’ Applied Cognitive Psychology, 10.2: 95-104

Lyons, K.E., Ghetti, S. and Cornoldi, C. (2010). Age differences in the contribution of recollection and familiarity to false-memory formation: a new paradigm to examine developmental reversals. Developmental Science, 13(2): 355-362

Newman, E.J. and Lindsay, D.S. (2009). False memories: What the hell are they for?. Applied Cognitive Psychology; 23: 1105-1121

Otgaar, H., Candel, I., Merckelbach, H. and Wade, K.A. (2009). Abducted by a UFO: Prevalence information affects young children’s false memories for an implausible event. Applied Cognitive Psychology; 23: 115-125

Sjoberg, R.L. and Lindholm, T. (2009). Children’s autobiographical reports about sexual abuse: A narrative review of the research literature. Nord J Psychiatry; 63: 435-442

Sjoden, B., Granhag, P.A., Ost, J. and Hjelmsater, E.R.A.F. (2009). Is the truth in the details? Extended narratives help distinguishing false “memories” from false “reports”. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 50: 203-210