False MemoriesA false memory is the name given to memories that are tainted withmisinformation or that do not exist. Everyone has recalled false memories intheir life although most or all persons do not even realize it. “Severalstudies have been conducted on human memory and on subjects’ propensity toremember erroneously events and details that did not occur…the resultsindicated that subjects remembered seeing the false image” (Engelhardt, 1999p.
25 vol.1:1). When a person places the ideas of perception, emotion, andvisual/auditory senses on the same plate of attention and detail; it makesperfect sense why a human being’s memory has been diluted with misinformationcausing false memories. The author will discuss a false memory experiment;distracters of said experiment; incidents of false memory; and how falsememories affect the legal system. In regards to false memory experiments there are variables calleddistracters.
The type of experiment that will be discussed specifically is theCOG LAB False Memory Test (Wadsworth Cognitive Psychology Online Laboratory). “Theindependent variable in this experiment was the type of word presented at test:(1) on list, (2) unrelated distracter, and (3) related distracter. Thedependent variable was the percentage of each type of item recalled” (WadsworthCognitive Psychology Online Laboratory, 2011. Results page.). In thisexperiment there is a related distracter which is a word that can be related toor associated with the distracter. For example, the list would show the word candy,then show related distraters such as: sweet; sticky; and sugar.
There were alsounrelated distracter words which are not related to or associated with thedistracter. For example, the same list would also show unrelated distracterssuch as: cold; sharp; and cloud. The prediction behind this test using thesedistracters is “People should recall the related distracters very often.
Theidea is that many of the words presented are related to the distracter, andmost likely you thought about the distracter item as the words were beingshown. At test, you have a memory of thinking about the word, but thought thiswas because it was presented rather than realizing you had just thought aboutthe word” (Wadsworth Cognitive Psychology Online Laboratory, 2011. Resultspage.).The author reported seeing 90% of the original list, 6% of the normaldistracter, and a whopping 66.6% of the special distracter (not in the list).
Thestudies behind false memory are very robust. By only viewing a list of relatedand unrelated words the author “saw” 66.6% of words that were not on the list.Imagine how this affects a person’s day to day memories. Then when emotion,perception and attention are mixed with this result; a person has a completelydistorted view and remembrance of a situation or event.
This would be anexample of other special distracters that enter the experiment. Top-downcognition could basically be the culprit of carrying around all thesedistracters. This brings us to the next section of the essay.
A good example of a false memory is: a person is at the doctoroffice and remembers that the doctor was wearing a stethoscope around his neck,but later found out that the doctor does not use a stethoscope because he ishearing impaired. What could have caused this person to remember seeing thedoctor with this item around his neck? There are many reasons why this personis remembering this image of the doctor. The person could basically bestereotyping his memory with the idea that most doctors carry a stethoscope andout of convenience it was around the doctor’s neck. This is a perfect exampleof top-down processing making its way into a memory.
Another reason a personmight remember seeing this item is because they did actually see a stethoscopearound a neck, it just wasn’t around the doctor’s neck. If the nurse had astethoscope and walked in the room at the same time to take vital signs whilethe doctor is speaking; due to inattention a person might remember thestethoscope being used, a doctor talking to them and mesh it together to makethe false memory. Lastly, the memory could be the result of seeing somethingaround the doctor’s neck and simply assuming it is a stethoscope. For example,the person may have had a very brief meeting with the doctor and in that timenoticed something black around his neck, but hidden by his lab coat. The personthen assumes what it is and “fills in the gaps”. Although the item was neveractually seen and it was a black name tag badge, the memory was made and thisis what the person would remember.Now that false memories and the role that distracters play increating them have been discussed we will move on to the fact that eyewitnesstestimony is used daily in the justice system to provide information on theaccused or situation at hand and how the study of false memories fits into thispractice.
The problem with eye witness testimony is that is it rarely accurate.”Accuracy of recollection decreases at a geometric rate rather than arithmeticrate (so passage of time has a highly distorting effect on recollection);accuracy of recollection is not highly correlated with the recollector’sconfidence; and memory is highly suggestible … and having been ‘reminded’ maythereafter hold the false recollection as tenaciously as they would hold a trueone” (Engelhardt, 1999 p.26 vol.1:1). Many studies suggest that not only can aperson be persuaded to remember certain events, but a person can completelyalter a memory of their own with no third party assistance. Memory is affectedby retelling and tailoring a memory to fit the story teller’s purpose. Meaningthat, a person rarely tells a memory or a story just to tell it. There isusually a reason or purpose behind the retelling.
Unless a person retells astory in an absolutely neutral fashion; the memory will be altered by simplytalking about it. Once a person has altered the memory it is then remembered inthe form it is was altered to. You can see that after many years recollectionis affected and the story had probably been altered; causing a false memory.Because of the idea that a person rarely tells a story in neutralfashion, this automatically biases an eyewitness account. Not only do we dependon an eyewitnesses account but as humans we believe that if a person is ‘sure’of the account that makes it more dependable. However, witness confidence isoften higher for an incorrect memory than for a correct memory (Engelhardt,1999).
Unfortunately even with research and empirical evidence, eyewitnesstestimony is still highly regarded.The author believes that eyewitness testimony should carry weightin a criminal trial, however not to the extent of being able to incriminate aperson without physical evidence. Without eyewitness testimony, many criminalswould escape the justice system. It is usually only by eyewitness account thatan investigation does not halt at the scene.
But to be able to use eyewitnesstestimony solely as the proof to incriminate a person is absurd. The justicesystem has checks and balances in place to make sure that unfair or untrueinformation does not penetrate the court hearings, and because of that theauthor believes that at this point in time there is no need for changing themethod of using eyewitness accounts in criminal proceedings. It is a necessaryevil one could say.
We the people have the right to trial by jury, freedom ofspeech and fair treatment. This means that a person who is believed to have pertinenteyewitness evidence is allowed or even forced to provide the information, andthen it would be up to a jury of peers to decide the accuracy and importance ofthe information. In conclusion, false memories are tainted or completely fabricatedmemories, which are formed through special distracters. These distracters are(but not limited to): emotion, perception, attention, and top-downcognition. Although much research provesthat eyewitness account is inaccurate and should not be used to incriminate aperson, it is the right and duty of the public to provide and accept thisinformation. Though most memories are in some fashion a false memory; they arestill memories and as human beings we believe what we see even by the mind’seye.