50 percent may experience ‘false memories’

Lewis Germain  I Dec 20 2016

Memories are precious. They may be the only record of the most important and precious moments in our lives. However, a recent study has suggested that certain recollections may not be as reliable as we thought.  ‘False memories’ may indeed be more common than we think. With convictions and therapy often based on our recollections, a ‘false’ memory may be more than just disappointment.

The false memory phenomenon

 ‘False memories’ are the recollection of events in an individual’s past that did not actually occur. These can vary in their vividness, from someone simply believing that they experienced an event, to complete recollection. These are particularly associated with a certain form of psychoanalysis - exploring unconscious thoughts - in which approaches called ‘suggestive techniques’ are used to stimulate childhood memories.

This technique can be useful, for instance, when childhood trauma is believed to be a deeply-rooted cause of psychiatric illness, or in criminal cases of sexual abuse.  Seemingly, then, a great deal can be riding upon the retrieval of certain memories, which makes the study of false ones important to many different areas. It isn’t hard to imagine that convictions made on false memories could be possible.

Research findings

The recent study in question, undertaken at Warwick University, analysed the original data collected by eight previous studies on false memory. Researchers used one tool to code the data across all of the studies, allowing them to combine all of their results. Thus, they were able to summarise the findings from this chunk of previous research to construct a wider picture of the subject.

From all of the data available to them, the researchers found that after engaging in suggestive techniques to evoke memories, 30.4% of participants showed evidence of recollecting events that didn’t actually occur, with a further 22.9% believing that an event occurred without having specific memories of it. This equates to false memory rate of 53.3% across the eight studies; perhaps our recollections aren’t quite as reliable as we’d like to believe.

What do these results mean?

At first glance, a false-memory rate north of 50% casts the reliability of eye-witness accounts and recollection of childhood trauma into considerable doubt. However, for a couple of reasons, it appears that the specifics of this concerning statistic should not be heeded too closely. Firstly, the researchers identified that false memory formation is likely to be due to many different variables that even psychologists do not fully understand. Additionally, it is difficult to ensure that the memories are being interpreted properly by the researcher, and that the tools used to measure them are accurate.

Hence, the take-home message should be that the suggestive practices used to evoke old memories would appear to breed inaccuracies, carrying the potential consequence of wrongful incrimination.

Nevertheless, the validity of false memory theory remains a controversial one, and fully understanding its ins and outs is beyond the scope of this article. Thus, it appears that the findings from this study are just the tip of an incredibly gargantuan iceberg, the limits of which are yet to be defined. Research is ongoing.

Any opinions above are the author's alone and may not represent those of the NHS or Mind and Medicine. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.

Wade KA, Lindsay DS, Azad T, et al (2016). A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies. Memory; (ahead of publication).