Why We're Misguided by False Memories and Misinformation

We often think that our memory serves us best.

But, when retracing the events of our past, it’s quite possible that what we remember is not completely accurate.

Depending on the situation, what we were feeling at the time of memory, and a slew of other factors can affect what we remember. With that being the case, can we really rely on the memories we hold to tell us the full story?

What is the Misinformation effect?

This very hiccup in the accuracy of our episodic memories is part of the cognitive biases that affect memory, known as the misinformation effect.

Closely associated with the study of false memories, the misinformation effect is when we are unable to accurately recall the events of what had passed due to the influence of information that has come thereafter.

The discovery of the misinformation effect has revealed the flaws in our own memories, placing concern on the reliability of such memories. Over the years, this bias has become even more notable, especially when it comes to understanding the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies — as there have been countless stories of false judgments and wrongful accusations.

Where it comes from

Studied since the 1970s, one of the leading pioneers in this field is a researcher and American psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus. Well-known for her studies on false memories, Loftus and others conducted a study that showed participants a series of slides. On one of the slides, there was a picture of a car stopped in front of a stop sign. Later, Loftus and researchers gave the participants descriptions of what we’re on the slides, with some of them given descriptions with misinformation — stating that there was a yield sign.

They discovered that when the participants were later asked to recall what they saw, those who were given the misinformed descriptions reported seeing a yield sign, despite the image itself clearly being a stop sign.

“The misinformation effect refers to the impairment in memory for the past that arises after exposure to misleading information.”

— Elizabeth Loftus

Another popular study done by Loftus involved several experiments that required participants (490 subjects) to watch a film of automobile accidents and scenes involving fast-moving cars. The results from the study showed that after an event has occurred if a question is asked that presupposes that an object did exist in the scene (even though it didn’t), participants are more likely to report seeing such an object later on. This demonstrates that introducing new information post-event can alter the memory of that event.

Why it happens

  • Suggestibility — One of the things that largely causes the misinformation effect is the quality of suggestibility. This is when a person has an inclination to accept and act on the suggestion of others. Despite remembering something a certain way, our memories can get distorted if we are persistently and repeatedly told other information by someone else. This is especially the case when we are emotionally heightened, as people tend to be more receptive when experiencing intense emotions.
  • Misattribution — Another crucial cause of the misinformation effect is the misattribution of memory, more formally known as source misattribution. This is when we incorrectly identify the origin of a specific memory, perhaps pulling from somewhere else. When we lack a sense of self-awareness and do not pay attention to how our judgments are influenced during the time of retrieval, we may falsely attribute the memories, thus leading to misinformation.
  • Retroactive interferenceMisinformation is an example of what is called retroactive interference. The interference theory specifically refers to a process in learning, where the memories cemented in long-term memory cannot be retrieved in the short-term, due to the two systems interfering with one another. The idea behind retroactive interference is that new information that comes into the memory later interferes with previously encoded information, thus creating a skewed picture of what happened.
Image via Wikipedia

How we can prevent it

The misinformation effect is everywhere.

Beyond the studies mentioned earlier, we see it with fake news that runs rampant on social media. Even if a story is false or inaccurate, most people won’t take the time to dig deeper these days, relying on what they see at face value. Moreover, other cognitive biases such as authority bias can make us trust people that we deem as having some sort of authority.

Loftus and researcher Gillian Murphy conducted a study in 2018 that demonstrated just how susceptible we are to misinformation through fake news, where they illustrated via the study that people believe in fabricated stories that never existed, claiming to have memories of things that stemmed from a fake article.

While it can be tough to distinguish what is real and fake these days, one thought to take away as a means to prevent ourselves from the misinformation effect is to investigate thoroughly.

Moreover, when we are asked questions about our recollection of events, it’s important to have an investigative interview process that asks open-ended questions instead of leading ones. As we explored earlier, simply asking questions is not enough. We need to be asking the right questions to get the right answers.

And as always, do not simply believe everything you read on the web, but take your own approach to discover what’s real and what’s not.