Creating false memories is easy

February 11, 2013 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog

Check out the abstract to a paper posted last month where the researchers created false memories in people.

They gave participants made-up stories and pictures and asked people if they remembered them. About half the people “remembered” events that never happened. About a quarter “remembered” seeing the story on the news.

People remembered stories that fit their political orientation better than ones that challenged them.

The stories in this study were all political. The paper (downloadable from the link above) describes other research in this area and some history and their motivation. How much emotion a story evokes seems to contribute to how memorable it is, even if made up.

Here’s the abstract:

In the largest false memory study to date, 5,269 participants were asked about their memories for three true and one of five fabricated political events. Each fabricated event was accompanied by a photographic image purportedly depicting that event. Approximately half the participants falsely remembered that the false event happened, with 27% remembering that they saw the events happen on the news. Political orientation appeared to influence the formation of false memories, with conservatives more likely to falsely remember seeing Barack Obama shaking hands with the president of Iran, and liberals more likely to remember George W. Bush vacationing with a baseball celebrity during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. A follow-up study supported the explanation that events are more easily implanted in memory when they are congruent with a person’s preexisting attitudes and evaluations, in part because attitude-congruent false events promote feelings of recognition and familiarity, which in turn interfere with source attributions.

Personally I find this stuff fascinating — that the mind doesn’t always work how you expect. Since one of my major goals in this page is to improve yourself, I’ll point out that you can use this effect to your advantage.


The research shows, among other things, confirmation bias. When you want to change your beliefs, you can use things like this to drive confirmation bias in your favor, to cause yourself to take on new beliefs and forget old ones.

People think changing their beliefs is hard or impossible. This study suggests otherwise and gives ways to do so.

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