False Memory Experiment
A false memory log was created for the study participant. Using information provided by several family members, I created a list of “stories,” each about one paragraph in length. Each story was set in the participant’s early childhood. There were six stories in all; four of them were based on real events, while the remaining two stories were fictitious. Each story was carefully written to ensure that it sounded as if it could be authentic; this ensured that the fictitious stories would not be obvious to the participant.
All of the stories were concerning mildly traumatic events. One story, for example, concerned a childhood illness wherein the participant was home from school for several days. Another story concerned a death in the participant’s immediate family (both of these stories actually happened). The first fictitious story recounted the loss of a favorite childhood toy (neither the toy nor the loss were real). The second story related the details of a neighboring family moving away, and the grief the participant felt because she (the participant) was friendly with the family’s youngest daughter (this story was partially true; the neighbors did have a child, but they had a son, not a daughter). In the case of the second story, the participant was acquainted with the neighboring family, but was not actually very friendly with the young daughter. By the best collective estimations of the family members whose interviews led to the formation of the false memory log, each of the true and partially true events took place when the participant was between four and six years old.
The study participant, “Susan,” is a 26 year-old female. She is an elementary school teacher in her first year of teaching, and is a personal friend. She was selected for this project for several reasons: first, she is intelligent; second, she was a willing and available participant for both the initial experiment and a subsequent follow-up interview; finally, her immediate family was easily accessible to aid in the creation of the false memory log.
The setting for the experiment was Susan’s apartment. This location was chosen primarily to ensure that Susan would be comfortable, and would not be distracted by unfamiliar surroundings.
Susan was informed that she was going to participate in an experiment related to memory, though the “false memory” aspect was not initially revealed to her for obvious reasons. Susan was informed that she would be presented with information about events from her childhood as described by several family members, with the purpose of the presentation being to compare her memories of these events against the memories provided by the family members.
To ensure that Susan did not question the accuracy of any of the events presented to her, the real and the fabricated stories were recounted and created by her parents, an uncle on her father’s side, and her paternal grandfather. An effort was made to have her family members provide information that had not been the previous subject of overly-familiar “family stories;” again, this was done as a means of ensuring that the fictitious stories would not stand out too clearly from the real stories.
The experiment took place in the early evening, after a shared meal. As in the case of selecting the setting, the timing of the experiment was intended to further ensure that Susan would be comfortable and undistracted. Each story was relatively brief, and the initial experiment took approximately 75 minutes.
Because this experiment was limited to a single participant, it was not intended to serve as a rigorous scientifically-controlled study; it was, rather, simply intended to serve as an “experiment about an experiment,” in the sense that the results could perhaps be used to guide the structure of future experiments.
The structure of the experiment was based on available literature about the implantation of false memories. A similar study that utilized a single false memory (a story about the participant being lost in a shopping mall at the age of five) along with four real events was the primary inspiration for this experiment. Because there was only a single participant, the experiment included two fictitious stories in order to allow the responses to each fictitious story to be compared with each other.
The experiment was fairly simple: Susan was presented with each story in succession, with the fictitious stories placed in third and fifth place out of six total stories. In each case, Susan was first given a very general description of the event (“In this situation, you were five years old, and you got chicken pox,” for example). In each case, Susan was then prompted with increasingly-specific information, and asked to fill in the details as she remembered them. Because this was an informal study, there were no specific guidelines about how many questions each story should prompt, or when each story would conclude before the next one would begin. The events were allowed to unfold as each story, and Susan’s recollections (or lack of recollections) warranted.
As Susan recounted what she could or could not recall of each event, notes were taken about her comments as a means of comparing how her real memories would compare with her false memories.
Based on the available literature, the study came with the expectation that any false memories, while seeming real to the participant, would be distinguishable from the real ones based on the participant’s responses. Similar studies have indicated that when a participant responds affirmatively to false memories, he or she will described those memories with fewer words and less detail.
Interestingly, Susan’s responses were almost indistinguishable from each other; anyone reading only the notes taken from her responses would be unlikely to be able to tell them apart. The differences would only become clear when comparing her responses to the details that had been pre-written for each story.
In each case, Susan “remembered” the events fairly clearly; if there was any significant difference between her ability to recall real memories and false memories, it was only in the amount of detail Susan needed to be told before she was able to fill in the blanks herself.
In the cases of each real event, Susan’s memories were surprisingly clear, and closely paralleled the actual details as recounted by her family members. As she was presented with each story, she would be given just enough detail to prompt what she felt was a full recollection of the events. Once she began to describe the events in detail, she was given no further prompting.
In “recalling” each false story, Susan required roughly the same amount of prompting before fully describing them as she did with the real events. Also in each case she responded with roughly the same amount of detail. As noted, the significant difference was found in the details she recounted: her descriptions of her false memories were similar to the fabricated details only to the point where she had been prompted with those details; once she began to recount the stories herself, the details she created were all her own. Some examples:
False Memory Number One (The Lost Toy):
Susan was “reminded” only that she had lost a favorite toy as a child, and that she had owned the toy from her first birthday until she was five years old. The family member’s details described the toy as a Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed toy. Susan “recalled” losing a stuffed bunny, which she was able to describe in some detail (perhaps she really had owned such a toy, though her family did not recall such a toy when asked later). She was also able to describe the events of the loss, and subsequent efforts by her parents to replace it; none of these details matched the story provided by her family (which is hardly surprising).
False Memory Number Two (The Moving Neighbors):
Susan was again able to describe these events quite clearly, and again her false memories were entirely unlike the details provided by her family. Susan was able to describe everything from the physical characteristics of the “friend” who moved away to her sadness caused by the trauma of losing what she described as her “best friend.” In the story created by her parents, the “friend” was a blonde; Susan recalled a brunette. Her parents’ story indicated that they spent the weekend at her grandparent’s house, while Susan’s false memory indicated that she was present on moving day.
Susan was not told about the nature of the experiment at the time of the initial session. She was informed that she would have a follow-up interview in a few days, and was asked to make written notes if she recalled anything further about any of the events. A subsequent interview took place five days after the first one. Susan did produce notes about two of the stories, both of them based on real events. In the case of her contraction of chicken pox, Susan had written over a page of handwritten notes, the details of which matched and exceeded the details of the actual event. Another story, about her involvement in a school play in kindergarten, also produced further accurate memories, though fewer than did the “chicken pox story.” While neither of the false memories produced any further details, she also did not realize that any of the stories had not been real.
At the time of the second interview, the true nature of the experiment was revealed to Susan. Her initial reaction was one of disbelief, as she asked to see the notes from her parents and then the interview notes. Her initial disbelief was then followed by a period of deep embarrassment. At that point, the nature of false memories, and how they are constructed, was explained to her. Eventually this explanation made her take the experiment with a sense of humor, though she was clearly rattled by the experience.
I was absolutely amazed by how easily Susan was able to believe in the reality of the false memories. The situation made me wonder how that could happen: I considered that her false memory of the lost bunny might have been based on a real toy she recalled from childhood, and that the description of the neighbor girl might have been based on someone she knew from school or from the neighborhood. Neither explanation could fully account for the amount of detail she was able to provide, however.
Seeing how easily Susan was able to create her own false memories, based largely on the trust she had for those who provided the details of the real and false events, was both fascinating and terrifying. It made me question many of my own memories, and the actual nature of memory itself. If we cannot trust our own memories, what can we trust?