Raise your hand if you've ever had to remember something. I hope that everyone's hand is raised. Now, raise your other hand if you've ever had a false memory, that is, a past recollection you've had which turned out to be completely false. Okay, your hand(s) do not need to be raised anymore. I mean, you look kind of funny just sitting there with your hand in the air, especially if you have both of them up. Besides, how are you supposed to keep scrolling through this blog without using your hands!? Regardless of whether you have ever experienced a false memory before, chances are you're going to be just as fascinated as I am about recent research performed at the University of North Florida.
First, we'll begin some relevant information on the background and prevalence of false memories. "Research on false memories, which has increased dramatically in the past decade, has mainly focused on the cognitive influences that lead to the creation of false memories, such as the theoretical causes of decreased memory strength and source confusion" (Leding, 2012). With all of this in mind, you may be asking yourself, "Causes? You mean this is a phenomenon which doesn't just occur naturally?" If so, you're in luck, because this very question was targeted and researched throughout Juliana K. Leding's article, False Memories and Persuasion Strategies. You may also be asking yourself, "Why is all of this even of importance? Does it even matter?" To answer this, we need look no further than some of the cases highlighted at the beginning of Leding's article.
Remember back to the Washington D.C. area sniper accounts from 2002. Chances are you're like me and remember the hype surrounding the existence of the likely getaway car, a white van. The reasoning for this was the reports given by witnesses at the sites of various attacks, many of whom identified a white van. Only later, after ten people lost their lives, did we learn the true getaway vehicle, a blue sedan specifically outfitted and rigged to serve as a shooting bunker. In 2009, James Bain was finally exonerated for his crimes related to kidnapping and rape. Bain had been initially identified in a line-up by the victim, a 9 year old boy. New DNA evidence showed that Bain was not in fact guilty of the crime. He had spent 35 years behind bars. Finally, and most disturbingly, the article mentions the story of Paul Ingram, who in 1988 "was accused and interrogated for committing various crimes, including raping his daughters and taking part in a satanic cult ritual that killed infants. Through a series of interrogations that took place over 5 months, Ingram confessed to every allegation and actually formed memories for every single charge that was brought against him, even though there was no physical evidence that these events had occurred" (Leding, 2012).
Each of the aforementioned examples represents instances in which the existence and reliance upon false memories resulted in disastrous consequences for the parties involved. Accordingly, society demands answers as to how these errors could possibly be regarded as fact. But the multiple independent witnesses who reported the white van in the D.C. shootings had no motivation to lie about the circumstances. And there's no evidence to suggest that James Bain made up such horrific stories about crimes just so that he could ascertain the highest amount of punishment possible. So then what in fact is causing this phenomenon of fake memories?
According to the article, the answer relates to persuasion strategies utilized by authority figures (detective, interrogator, therapist, etc.) throughout their involvement with various parties, be it the defendant, witness, victim, etc. Detailing the various ways by which an authority figure might attribute to the creation of false memories accounts for just some of the reasoning which Leding uses to support her case. Eyewitnesses, for example, are inherently viewed by detectives as being a rich source of information, and since it is the responsibility of the detective to solve the crime, "that detective has the incentive to get as much information as possible out of the eyewitness. If that detective use any of the persuasive strategies discussed above, the eyewitness might inadvertently form false memories due to the persuasive nature of the interview and the detective" (Leding, 2012).
For me, the very suggestion that authoritative figures, the very people we trust to protect and keep us safe, may play some inadvertent role in contributing to potentially devastating false memories, is more than enough reason to warrant further research.
Leding, J. K. (2012, June 11). False Memories and Persuasian Strategies. Review of General Psychology. Advance online publication. Doi: 10.1037/a0027700