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Suggestibility’s Strong Influence on Behavior

How reliable are your memories?  Before I took Cognitive Psych, I never considered this question.  In fact, I assumed that most of what I remembered was true, even things from my early childhood.  Now that I know about suggestibility, I have begun to second-guess what I know about many of my past experiences.  Suggestibility occurs when, without realizing it, we include information from others in our memories.  This can lead to changes in memories, and sometimes the creation of non- experienced, or “false” memories.

There are two basic types of suggestions.  A personalized suggestion is one that indicates that something may have happened specifically to you in the past.  General suggestions, on the other hand, suggest that something happened to many people in the past.  For example, a personalized suggestion could involve your grandmother saying, “you always used to wear those green overalls when you came to visit me,” while a generalized suggestion may involve reading a magazine article that says green overalls were very popular among children in the late 1990s.  Research has shown that personalized suggestions create false autobiographical memories, which can affect behavior.  Memories are very important in guiding our behavior.  For example, if you remember a negative event associated with a certain place, you are more likely to avoid that place in the future.  Generalized suggestions guide behavior as well, but not through false memories.  In this case, a person may hear that something happened to others in the past and adjust their behavior to avoid experiencing it.  For example, if you learned that many people got sick from eating raw cookie dough, you might avoid sampling the batter when making cookies so as not to get sick yourself.

It is well known that suggestibility has an impact on our behavior, but a recent study wanted to take a closer look at this.  Scoboria, Mazzoni, Jarry, and Bernstein (2012) compared the effects of personalized and general suggestions to examine how and why different types of suggestibility influence behavior.  They used general and personal suggestions about a negative past experience with peach yogurt to look at suggestibility’s impact on attitudes and behavior.

Participants filled out surveys on eating habits and past experiences with food, including preferences and past food illnesses.  They were told that the surveys would be used to test a new method for calculating the probability of childhood experiences, and that their results would determine how likely it was for them to have experienced multiple food-related events.  Two weeks after the survey, participants were given a general or personalized suggestion, both, or neither.

Participants who received a personalized suggestion were told that, according to their results, there was a “very high probability” that they had experienced certain events during childhood.  One of these events was sickness caused by spoiled peach yogurt.  Those who received generalized suggestions were told that their survey results were inconclusive; meaning the probability that they had experienced any of the food- related experiences was not especially high or low.  General suggestion participants were also told that researchers were studying commonly forgotten events that had happened to many people.  They were given a false health report from their childhood years describing an outbreak of sickness from e coli contamination of yogurt, and detailed the symptoms experienced by those affected.

After the suggestion phase, all individuals participated in a guided imagery activity that asked them to search their memory for details matching the event described and to visualize these details.  Later on, attitudes and behavior were measured through surveys and taste tests.  Those who had received a personalized suggestion showed an immediate decreased preference for and lowered intention to eat peach yogurt compared to other foods, while those who received a generalized suggestion did not.  Personalized suggestion participants also ate less peach flavored yogurt than other flavors, which was not true of the generalized suggestion or control groups.

Did participants who received a personalized suggestion form an untrue memory about their childhood?  The researchers wanted to examine whether this “false memory” had formed and if it was responsible for attitude and behavior changes. To do this, they asked participants if they had a memory of the peach yogurt incident happening to them.  Of the personalized suggestion group, 19% reported having a memory for the incident, while this was only true for 2% of participants in the generalized suggestion group.  This provided support for the theory that personalized suggestion creates false memory more readily than generalized suggestion.  Additionally, participants who formed a false memory were more likely to avoid peach yogurt in the taste test, showing the strong influence of memories, true or false, on our behavior.

What does this study tell us about suggestibility?  First of all, shows that for suggestibility to truly influence long-term behavior, the creation of false memory may be necessary.  The authors pointed out the important role of episodic memory, memory for specific events, in linking suggestion and behavior.  Memory of a specific event allows a person to picture future events like it and plan their actions in response to those events.  In the case of this study, if a person “remembered” a negative encounter with peach yogurt, he or she was more likely to avoid it in the future.  Using our memories to avoid future negative experiences can be very helpful, but it is slightly unsettling to realize that our behavior may be based on false information we have about past experiences.  Recognizing the occurrence of suggestibility and the strong impact of episodic memory is important in reducing their influences on our behavior, and greater awareness of these factors on a day-to-day basis could be helpful.

Reference:

Scoboria, A., Mazzoni, G., Jarry, J. L., & Bernstein, D. M. (2012). Personalized and not general suggestion produces false autobiographical memories and suggestion-consistent behavior. Acta Psychologica, 139(1), 225-232. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.10.008

  1. March 26th, 2014 at 23:36 | #1

    This was a very interesting article to think about. It is really interesting how memories can be affected so easily by what other people tell us. I am sure that many memories I have from when I was a kid have been formed after hearing my mom tell the stories over and over again. There have been many occasions when someone that knew me a kid has told me something that I didn’t really remember, but the memory will then slowly “come back to me”. Suggestibility is clearly very influential. The fact that the participants that were told they most likely had had a bad experience as a kid, by a completely stranger were then able to have these memories is almost scary. Also the fact that their desire to eat the peach yogurt was greatly affected shows how much influence over our lives that memories have. You always rely on your memory to be concrete and real, so to think that many of the things you think you remember did not really happen can be upsetting.

  2. Tara Nguyen
    March 19th, 2014 at 09:34 | #2

    This post reminds me of a study by Hessen-Kayfitz and Scoboria (2012), which examined the effects of details in a doctored photo on creating false memories. In this study, each participant viewed a doctored photograph, and the degree of self-relevance and non-self-relevance of the details differed among photos. The results showed that participants were most likely to have false memories when the doctored photos had only self-relevant details but not non-self-relevant details. When participants saw both types of details at the same time, false memory is not likely to occur. These findings indicate that self-relevant details in a photograph may induce feelings of familiarity, whereas non-self-relevant details may dismiss such feelings. When both types of details are presented together, people have a harder time processing them together, and thus are likely to experience cognitive dissonance.

    In connection with your post, I wonder how varying the number of personalized and generalized suggestions a person receives would affect their memory. Also, what would combinations of both types of suggestions do to memory? Would personalized suggestions that conflicted with generalized suggestions (or vice versa) create cognitive dissonance, thereby hampering the formation of false memories?

  3. March 16th, 2014 at 11:56 | #3

    I found this post very interesting. In terms of my own experience with suggestibility influencing memories I have often wondered how much old photographs or home videos have affected my ‘actual’ memory of the event. Recently I have found myself able to recall particular events in my early childhood but only after seeing a photograph. This would be considered a ‘personalized suggestion’ according to this post. If such is the case it makes sense that these false memories have been persisted. After reading this I wonder how much of a person’s memories are their actual recollections of the event versus being amalgamations of other people’s accounts and so on and so forth. I wonder how the results would be changed if the study had tested something less trivial than a person’s preference for peach yogurt. 19% were reported to have a created a false memory. Perhaps this statistic might increase if the tested object was maybe more significant than a dairy product.

  4. March 14th, 2014 at 11:42 | #4

    I agree with Gabrielle — I wonder about the reason why only 19% of those who received a personalized suggestion reported a false memory while the group as a whole decreased their likelihood to eat peach yogurt. I’m sure that not every participant who received such a suggestion was less likely to eat peach yogurt, so what happened to the other 81%? In order for the results to show such a decrease, it is likely that more than 19% of the participants had to stop eating it. Additionally, I wonder if it is possible to develop a false taste aversion. If it were possible, perhaps the 19% developed a kind of aversion based solely upon the suggested information. Personally, I have found the effects of taste aversion to be quite strong. The first time I ate a taco, I got nauseous. Now, I do not want to eat tacos; moreover, I do not like tacos. While, intellectually, I know that this is irrational — I cannot judge all tacos by that one incident — I developed a dislike for tacos because they made me sick. This, being the definition of a taste aversion, has been a strong impact found across the general population and among a variety of foods. Thus, I wonder if the 19% who reported a memory of being sick after eating peach yogurt actually developed a taste aversion, as this would have lead them to no longer desire peach yogurt.

  5. December 2nd, 2013 at 23:30 | #5

    It is truly remarkable how susceptible our mind is to creating false memories; however, I am curious if we are equally susceptible for all types of memories. In class, in the textbook, and in this study we see that people are capable of believing they experienced a negative event after being subjected to personalized suggestions, but are people equally capable of believing they experienced a positive event? For example, can a person be subjected to a personal suggestion and then believe that they won twenty dollars on a scratch-off card or received a note from a secret admirer? If so, then would these positive false memories affect behavior in a similar manner to negative false memories?

  6. December 2nd, 2013 at 08:44 | #6

    I think this was a really interesting article, especially since we had talked about suggestibility in class and how it relates to witnesses in trials. I think that this article shows how easy it is to create false memories especially from personalized suggestions and how much it can really change and affect your decision making. In criminal trials, there is so much suggestibility: the way a witness is questioned, the things said during or after the witnessed event, in discussion of what had really happened. So many questions can be posed in a suggesting manner that can really change how the memory is looked on, and it also can change the memory itself. This study looked at yogurt consumption and feelings toward peach yogurt, if a person stops eating peach yogurt due to suggestibility it won’t change their life significantly. But if someone changes their memory based on something suggested about a witnessed event, that can change the way someone is persecuted, and thus affect their entire life.

  7. November 28th, 2013 at 12:15 | #7

    I think the suggestibility sin of memory in general is truly fascinating. This experiment, as you said, revealed that 19% of the participants who received a personalized suggestion created a false memory of this suggested event. I am left wondering about these 19%. Although this number is statistically significant than the 2% of participants who received no suggestion and created the false memory, this percentage of participants is still far less than the majority. I am curious if any other studies have been conducted that investigate any personality characteristics or historical perspectives that make a participant more prone and susceptible to creating these false memories. Is this why some people are better liars than others? Are they simply ‘good’ at incorporating their lies into their own memory of these events?

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