Home > Attention, Memory > Do You Remember What Happened? The Power of Memory Distortion

Do You Remember What Happened? The Power of Memory Distortion

A memory is an event we remember from our past. We have memories of the first time we rode a bike, the time we graduated high school, our first boyfriend/girlfriend and even memories of where we were on 9/11. We believe that our memories are true recollections of what happened, and that what we remember is accurate. However, this isn’t always true; memories are fallible even under the best conditions. In fact, false memories, implanted memories and misinformation are very likely to distort our memory.

False memories are memories that we have of things that didn’t actually happen. Unknowingly, we are changing the memory and adding or subtracting details that were not part of the original event or even an early memory of the event. We adjust the memory for many reasons and then it is difficult to remember it with any accuracy.

Implanted memories are slightly different as they are fictitious events that are created based on suggestion. In a study by Loftus and Pickell (1995), the researchers got close family members to tell adults about a false event that they supposedly experienced when they were younger, such as getting lost in a shopping mall. After the suggestion alone, these adults began to ‘remember’ that they actually had been lost in a mall when they were younger. In some cases, the experience grew more and more detailed over time.

Misinformation refers to incorrectly recalling details of past events, usually after being exposed to false or erroneous information or language. An example of false memory is in an early study by Loftus and Palmer (1974). They were testing to see if leading questions influenced participants’ answers and their memories. In this study, participants were shown a car accident between two cars and then were asked leading questions after seeing the event. They asked people “how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other?” This question led to higher estimates of speed of the cars versus when the same question was asked with the verb hit instead of smashed. The participants were also asked if they saw glass at the scene.  Even though there was no glass at the scene, the participants who said yes, were in the group that were asked about the cars ‘smashing’ into each other. This notion of reconstructing memories of things that weren’t there is known as the misinformation effect. This effect is extremely detrimental in getting accurate eyewitness testimony; if a lawyer can use biased language to sway a witness’s memory in believing either something did or didn’t actually happen.

All three of these memory distortions prove that our memory can be altered, and sometimes, with even the slightest influence. This is important to consider as we review  how legal matters often take into account the accuracy of memory and how problematic distorted memories are. Members of the criminal justice system, eyewitnesnes and professionals who work with victims of traumatic stress are all in positions that rely on memory accuracy.  Any type of altered memory can create serious consequences for all involved.

Stress can also really muddle our memories. You might think that when someone is under stress, that there would be heightened awareness and focus, and therefore, a better ability to remember things more accurately. However, the opposite is true; being under intense stress makes people more susceptible to memory distortions.


Everyday the military are put into extremely stressful positions; they put their lives on the line and have to make life or death decisions. Due to the intensity and the stressfulness of the job, they must endure Survival School training in order to become eligible to be in front line positions. One such training is going through a mock prisoner of war (POW) camp. This camp is to see how they handle being captured and put under severe stress. It also tests their mental capacity of what they remember happened when put under these psychologically challenging situations.

Morgan III, Southwick, Steffian, Hazlett and Loftus (2013) decided to study this training and see the effect of recently experienced and extremely high stress events on memory. They wanted to use the Survival School training to test their hypothesis because it would produce a more realistic nature of stress given the environment, and it would be much more realistic than if it was tested in a lab. This setting allowed them to test the real-world impact of misinformation in highly stressful events.

The participants, all military personnel, were captured and put into a POW camp. After hours of being in the camp they were individually interrogated. The interrogation room was fully lit so the prisoner could see and hear the interrogator. They were required to face the interrogator, maintaining eye contact at all times. They also were kept lower then the interrogator, for example being made to bend or straighten his or her knees. If they did not comply with these orders or did not appear to answer the questions, they were physically confronted. The physical abuse they endured included facial slaps, abdominal punches, slamming the student into the wall and stress positions. After the interrogation they were put into isolation for 36 hours, where they were deprived of food, water and sleep.


After the interrogation, the prisoners were exposed, as a group, to a propaganda speech. The speech was provocative and designed so the prisoners could experience situations of that has led prior prisoners people to give information to the enemy before. The whole POW camp was a long and intense process where the participants suffered repeated and persistent stressors. The captivity was modeled after direct experiences of military personnel who were POWs, making the experience very realistic and, therefore, extremely stressful. The stress that was experienced during the interrogation elicited intense changes in psychological and neurobiological indices, more than many real world threat-to-life events such as skydiving for the first time.

After the whole experience was over, all personnel went through memory tests to see the effect of misinformation and stress on their memory. The memory test was made up of three parts: descriptive characteristics of the interrogator, open-ended questions about objects in the room and photos of an eyewitness line-up of their potential interrogator. None of the actual interrogators were presented in the line-up.

To measure the impact of misinformation, they created four groups. One group was not misinformed and given no misleading questions in the memory test. The other three groups were all misinformed, but in different ways. One group was given misinformation in the memory test with misleading questions. Another group were exposed to misinformation when they were in isolation, in the form of a picture. The picture was an image of a person, but not of the interrogator. The last group was exposed to misinformation, after the propaganda speech, in the form of a video.

The findings from this study showed that all three groups who received the misinformation had significant increases in the amount of false memories compared to the no misinformation group. The most surprising and finding hardest to believe was the results from the misinformation group who saw the photo in isolation. The photo that they had seen previously was presented in the eyewitness line-up, and looked nothing like the interrogator (see Figure 1). However, 84% of the military personnel falsely identified the picture as their interrogator. There is a very clear difference between the two pictures, but after only 44 hours, the misinformation had produced a significant alteration to completely change the memory of the military personnel.

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This study shows just how powerful the mind is. Military personnel, who are specifically trained to resist exploitation and propaganda efforts, and who were aware that it was only a mock training were still susceptible to memory distortions. These are people who should be able to evade false memories, and yet they were still deceived based on a photograph and misleading information. If a population who is supposed to be able to withstand memory manipulations, what happens when we use eyewitness arrays and misleading questions on untrained peopled? This is what happens when people engage in eyewitness testimony and when people have to identify perpetrators; they are susceptible to false memories. This study, and many other studies that have been done, show us just how vulnerable our memory is and how easy it is to alter memory by influence from other information.

Memories are important things; they are part of our daily lives. But our memories need to be protected, especially, if those memories are important to protect ourselves and others, be it in combat or through the legal system. And being aware of the impact of ‘bad information’ on our memories is a good place to start.

To read the original article, click here


Loftus, Elizabeth F. & Palmer, John C. (1974). Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 585-589.

Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The  formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725

Morgan III, C.A., Southwick, S., Steffian, G., Hazlett, G.A., & Loftus, E. F. (2013). Misinformation can influence memory for recently experienced, highly stressful events. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 36, 11-17.


  1. October 7th, 2014 at 22:36 | #1

    This blog post is interesting because the ideas of false memories and misinformation are relevant to many situations that have been mentioned here such as the courtroom, accidents, and prisoners of war as well as burglaries and recounting criminal activity. The point made about stress levels that affect the brain’s ability to remember the specifics of an event makes sense because part of the brain’s attention is devoted to feeling fear or anxiety and therefore the capacity of attention used to focus on the details of an event is decreased. The fact that the loaded questions or misinformation in the POW experiment led to all three groups experiencing false memories is shocking. As stated, military personnel are people who would be expected to remember minute details about their surroundings due to the fact that they constantly have to do so, and yet the misinformation provided to them caused most of them to forget their interrogator. If the same situation happened during someone robbing a bank, for example, the stressed bystanders might not recognize the perpetrator due to loaded questions either purposely or accidentally asked by the police. I am curious to see a more detailed account of the effects of stress on false memories or misrecognition of people, places, or events that took place.

  2. November 28th, 2014 at 22:19 | #2

    That sounds like a really intense POW camp simulation; I don’t know how anyone can do this kind of stuff. I guess they knew what they signed up for though. I’m not so surprised that they’re also susceptible to these false memories. From all I’ve heard about memory distortions, there seems to be no protection against them; anyone can have their memory altered at even the slightest suggestion even without thinking about it. Even if we’re consciously trying to keep the memory veridical, memory is never going to be video camera perfect. Especially in these amazingly stressful situations, there is a lot of ambiguity and doubt that could give way to false memories. The obscuring of any information causes us to fill in the gaps with expectations and misinformation, so there’s really no helping it. I’d like to know if there was any significant difference between the different group situations. Did the location of the misinformation matter all that much? I know isolation would be a huge factor in distorting memory. I go into trance-like states all the time, during which I start doubting the veridical nature of any memories that I have and they start to warp and distort just on their own. An isolation chamber would force that sort of situation on them, and the face of the interrogator could be anybody. I’m not too shocked or anxious about distorted memories; memory has never been perfect and we’ve always dealt with that. They difference now is that video cameras can’t go into any distorted trance state on their own, so there are at least some ways for us to get our veridical “memories.”

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