Home > Memory > Photographs and False Memory: Did I really go for a hot air balloon ride?

Photographs and False Memory: Did I really go for a hot air balloon ride?

Have you ever looked at a picture from when you were younger and had absolutely no memory of it? Or have you ever had a memory from when you were young that you’re not sure actually happened? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you are completely normal and with this rest of us who sometimes have trouble recalling memories from our childhood and whether or not certain events actually took place. If these events never really happened, then why do we remember them?  Memories for things that did not actually happen are called false memories, more specifically implanted memories, and psychologist have been researching false memories for years. Many researchers looks at implanted memories, a phenomenon that refers to participants recalling specific details about “memories” that actually never took place. In implanted memory studies, researchers ask participants about specific events that took place during childhood, such as if they ever got lost at a park. Imagine being a participant in one of these studies. The first day that you come in, a researcher asks you about whether or not you ever got lost at the park when you were younger. You can’t remember ever being lost in the park, so you reply no. You continue to go in to see the researcher for multiple weeks, and every time the researcher asks you about being lost in the park when you were a kid. After a few weeks, you start to remember that actually, you were lost in the park when you were a kid and can remember specific details of being lost. This is how implanted memory studies take place, and by the end of a few weeks, researchers find that most participants start to recall specific details of events that never took place (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Crazy, isn’t it?

There are some types of memories that are particularly vulnerable to distortions and false memory. One type is flashbulb memories. Flashbulb memories are particularly emotional salient events that are often times very public and assumed to be very accurate. Think about when you first found out about 9/11 or the Boston Marathon Bombing in April 2013. Do you remember exactly how you found out and what you did? Most likely your memory for this event is very strong and feels vivid. It is most likely a flashbulb memory. Research has been done about flashbulb memories as well, and has found that they are not as accurate as they are assumed to be. Neisser and Harsch (1992) looked at people’s memories for the Challenger explosion in 1986. Twenty-four hours after the Challenger exploded, Neisser and Harsch asked participants about when they found out about the explosion, who was with them, where they were, and what they were doing. Two to three years after the event, Neisser and Harsch asked the same participants to describe their memory for the Challenger explosion again. What they found that only around 25% of the details participants recalled were the same as the details they described 24 hours after the event. Participants were confident of their answers but not very accurate at all.


These studies point to the malleability of memory. Memory is malleable; it is always changing and is easily influenced by what other people remember or recall. For example, if your best friend remembers that you had pizza for dinner at your 8th birthday party but you remember having pasta, maybe you’ll agree with your friend that you did, in fact, have pizza. In some ways, memory being malleable is a very positive thing; it means that we can learn new information and integrate new information with what we already know. However, memory being so malleable is also negative because it means that we can remember things incorrectly or even things that never even happened. Maybe you did actually have pasta for your birthday, but you let your friend’s memory influence your own.


Memory for pictures and photographs is particularly strong because photographs tend to be more distinctive than just a description. Also, pictures encode on two different levels: visual and verbal. Encoding is the processing in memory that perceives, recognizes, and processes incoming stimuli, whether the stimulus is verbal, visual, or auditory. Pictures have both a visual code, the actual picture, and a verbal code, the description of the picture (Paivio, 1991). For example, a picture of a tree has both the visual code of the picture and the word tree. Because memory for pictures is so strong, in general, memories for photographs are less likely to be distorted.


Knowing all of this, how can researchers explore how photographs influence memory? In one particular study, researchers manipulated photographs of participants to implant memories. Researchers obtained pictures of each participant from around age 6 or younger from their parents. Researchers doctored the photographs according to two different conditions. All the pictures were photo shopped to show the participant and their families on a hot air balloon ride. It was confirmed with the parents of the participants ahead of time that none of the participants in the study had actually ever been on a hot air balloon ride. One condition affected self-relevance. For the self-relevant condition researchers showed a picture of the participant and their family in the hot air balloon. In the not self-relevant condition researchers showed a picture of the participant and their family on a hot air balloon ride that was slightly distorted by the sun so that the picture was not fully clear. The other condition was whether or not the picture had an unfamiliar stimulus in it and the researchers used an ambiguous lighthouse as the unfamiliar stimulus. The picture below depicts the different conditions. Researcher asked participants look at different photographs and asked the participants whether or not it was plausible for the event in the photograph to have taken place and whether or not they had any memory of the event that was being shown in the photograph.

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Source: Hessen-Kayfitz and Scoboria, 2012

            The reasoning for the different pictures is that researchers wanted to see what the effect of self-relevant information (pictures where the family is clearly visible) and unfamiliar details (the lighthouse) had on remembering false events. The purpose of the sun distortion is that the sun makes it hard to see the photograph, therefore making it difficult for the participant to see themselves and their family in the photo. The unfamiliar stimulus’s purpose was to create doubt in the participants mind about whether the event took place because they do not recognize the lighthouse. The researchers predicted that memory for photographs that contained self-relevant details without unfamiliar stimuli would be more likely to be created than the other photographs. They also wondered whether or not participants would rate the memory as being stronger when photographs had self-relevant information.


What the researchers found is that false memories were more likely to be created for the hot air balloon ride with the family with photographs of self-relevant details and no unfamiliar details. This makes sense, because if you were shown a picture of your family all together somewhere that is ambiguous but not outright unfamiliar, wouldn’t you think it was real? This study shows once again how easily memory can be manipulated. The next time you see a picture of yourself when you were younger, or have a memory that you’re not so sure about, try to figure out if it really happened, and see how difficult that is to actually do!




Hessen-Kayfitz, Joanna K., and Scoboria, Alan. (2012) False Memory is in the Details: Photographic Details Differentially Predict Memory Formation. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26, 333-341

Loftus, E.F, and Pickrell, J.E. (1995) The Formation Of False Memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725

Neisser, Ulric and Harsch, Nicole (1992) Phantom Flashbulbs: False Recollections of Hearing the News about Challenger. Affect and and Accuracy in Recall: Studies of ‘flashbulb’ Memories. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 9-31, 315

Paivio, Allan (1991). Dual coding theory: Retrospective and current status. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 45, 255-287

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  1. November 23rd, 2014 at 14:30 | #1

    This is a really interesting post; however I question the ethics involved in these memory-manipulating studies. Is it okay to create false images of a person’s past without them being aware of it? Also, this type of research, though really cool, is concerning to me. Knowing that we can manipulate peoples’ past experiences could be dangerous. By intervening on one’s past, a person could implant numerous false memories to essentially brainwash a person. Is our memory bad enough so that people could recreate our entire past? It’s somewhat creepy to think about. Where is the boundary?

    Besides my ethical concerns, these studies do show how malleable our memory is. It is important for the brain to be malleable so that we can learn new things and let go of unnecessary, superfluous information.

    I also think it is interesting how you pointed out that we can trust other peoples’ memories over our own even though our memory is equally as bad. As we discussed in class, even though someone is confident with his/her memory for an event, he/she may not actually remember more.

    Perhaps we should continue writing about events in our lives (diaries, journals, etc) to prevent the influences of memory degradation when looking back at past events.

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