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I’m a Little Confused on How You Got Here

Where did I see that from?

One day, a psychologist was brought into the police office and was told being accused of rape. Little did he know that the woman who accused him of rape saw him on television prior to being raped. The woman had confused his face with the face of her attacker. The woman’s memory had failed at being able to differentiate where she saw the two faces. She wasn’t able to distinguish whether she had seen the psychologist face on television or as the attacker (Schacter, 1999). This is an example of a cognitive bias called misattribution of memory.

Let’s take the phrase “misattribution of memory” apart. Misattribute means to incorrectly assign the origin, cause, or source of something. For instance, you remember that someone made great coffee for you. You thought that it was your friend Amy so, you ask her to make it for you again.  However, it turned out that it was actually your friend, Sam. If you add the word memory to it, then misattribution of memory is when one incorrectly assigns the origin, cause or source of a memory. Misattribution of memory is a cognitive bias in which, people can remember what took place or the piece of information. However, they can’t remember where this information came from.

What Causes Misattribution of Memory

In order to further understand misattribution of memory, we need to understand memory in general. Imagine you are reading a book. If someone were to ask you to recite word for word a sentence in the book, there would be no way you would be able to accomplish that. However, you’ll be able to tell them what the book was about. Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t have as many resources as we give it credit for. Due to the lack of these resources, we typically only try to get the gist of the information. We do not pay any attention to the word for word details unless it stood out to us for some reason. Once we get information and understand the gist of it, it would be rare that we will try to remember where that information came from. Since we are not paying attention to the source, it will be more difficult to remember it. Hence, we will easily forget the source. So we use other information like past events, things we already know before, our assumptions, and inferences to affect the information (Roediger, Desoto, & Louis, 2015). Going off of this, we can now understand how the woman in the example got the two men confused. She saw the innocent man right before she was raped, making it easy to get the two men confused.

Applications/Types of Misattribution of memory

Though misattribution could take place on a scale as large as eyewitness testimony, it could also happen on a scale as small as not knowing whether you saw a meme on Twitter or on Instagram. Schacter wrote a book titled, The Seven Sins of Memory, that divides misattribution into three categories: source confusion, cryptomnesia, and false memories.

Source confusion is one of the most basic forms of misattribution. It is when people are able to correctly remember the information but assign it to the wrongs source.  We could confuse where we saw a face from or read an article from. For example, the woman was able to remember having seen the psychologist before, but she incorrectly sourced him to being the attacker. This could be as simple as confusing where you heard gossip or saw a meme from to being as extreme as eyewitness testimony. Speaking about eyewitness testimony, Zaragoza & Lane (1994)studied the effect that suggestibility has on eyewitness testimony. Suggestibility is another one o

Accidentally, putting the wrong person in prison

f the seven sins of memory somehow related to misattribution in that the suggestions can easily transform into false recollections.  In summary,(Zaragoza & Lane (1994) found that suggestibility played a big role in eyewitness testimony. They found that people have about a 75% confidence level for remembering reading or seeing suggested information through misleading questions. Because memory is reconstructive, we incorporate information that we get from the misleading question into our memory. Due to source confusion, we have trouble being able to differentiate where we got that information from. Knowing this, if you are ever to give a testimony as an eyewitness, ask yourself “Was I asked if the perpetrator’s shirt was blue or did I see the perpetrator wearing a blue shirt?’’ By simply asking ourselves this question will force us to recall the where things in our memory came from.


Another type of misattribution is cryptomnesia. Cryptomnesia could be defined as when a forgotten memory returns and is thought of as being something that the subject came up with themselves.  It happens when we don’t remember remembering information, so when the information pops up in our brain, out of nowhere, we think that we came up with this idea (Schacter, 1999). If you are in the academic world, you would notice that cryptomnesia happens all the time in the form of plagiarism. Even outside of the academic world, cryptomnesia is one of the leading causes of copyright court cases.

Last but not least, the final type of misattribution is when false memories are created. Since we are not very skilled at identifying where certain memories or thoughts came from, this can lead to the creation of memories that are not true. If you were alive for 9/11, you would think that you would be able to perfectly remember something as big and emotional as it was, right? However, that is completely false because even the President at the time, George Bush, couldn’t remember how he heard of 9/11. Greenberg (2004) conducted a study that compared the three different occasions in which Bush was asked to give an account of how he heard of the Twin Towers attack. On the two different occasions, Bush gave a completely different answer on

false memories

how he heard of the first plane crashing into the tower. In the first interview, Bush said that his Chief of Staff at the time told him the news. In the second interview, Bush said that his senior advisor told him about the first plane crash. This example just highlights how even the president can misremember important national events such as 9/11. By simply, misremembering where you got the memory from you are already creating a memory that isn’t true.



How do you fix memory misattributions? Sorry to inform you, but it is very hard to fix the wrong memory. I know that I mentioned that memory is reconstructive, but once our memory has been reconstructed once it is very difficult to change this memory. Previous research had shown that even when the participants were presented with the original memory that they had written down, they didn’t all of a sudden remember their original memory (Greenberg, 2004). It sucks to say that once errors have infiltrated our memory system, they are here to stay. However, one thing that you could to help this is to be more understanding that our memory makes errors such as not being able to tell where we got information from. Knowing this, you shouldn’t get angry if your friend doesn’t remember that you were the one that made her coffee.



Greenberg, D. L. (2004). President Bush ’ s False “ Flashbulb ” Memory of 9 / 11 / 01, 370, 363–370. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1016

Roediger, H. L., Desoto, K. A., & Louis, S. (2015). Reconstructive Memory , Psychology of. International Encyclopedia of Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition, Vol. 20). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.51016-2

Schacter, D. L. (1999). The Seven Sins of Memory Insights From Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, 54(3), 182–203.

Zaragoza, M. S., & Lane, S. M. (1994). Source Misattributions and the Suggestibility of Eyewitness Memory, 20(4), 934–945.


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