Home > Cognitive Bias, Memory > Are you SURE that happened or was that that just a (false) memory?

Are you SURE that happened or was that that just a (false) memory?

Imagine this. You’re in a convenience store and are getting ready to pay for some delicious Toll-House cookie dough (YUM). Suddenly, a man runs in wearing a mask and brandishing what appears to be a gun, so you decide to quickly hide near the front of the store behind some of the shelves. He demands for the cash in the register and the terrified workers quickly hand over the cash. You are so well hidden that the robber does not realize that there is anybody else in the store, and so as he is on his way out, he quickly removes his mask so that he can better see to escape. For a brief, fleeting couple of seconds, you get a perfect view of the man’s face. A few days later, the cops bring in some pictures of potential suspects to identify, and you are adamant that it was definitely a certain man in the pictures. However, the cops later realize that the man has an air-tight alibi from that day, which means that your identification of the criminal was incorrect. How could this happen?

This would’ve been a less scary robber to identify.

Well, thanks to cognitive psychology, we know that this misidentification probably happened due to the phenomenon called false memory. A false memory is when somebody has either a recollection of an event that did not actually occur, or when somebody remembers an event very differently from how it actually occurred. Essentially, no matter how sure you are that you remembered something correctly, there is a still a chance that you could be wrong. Crazy, right? So, next time you’re promising someone you are remembering some event correctly – just think and wonder how solid this promise actually is!

False memories are EVERYWHERE!

Now, think back to the scenario we talked about with the robber. This problem of incorrectly identifying a criminal is more common than people may think, which means that there are often many errors in eyewitness testimonies. An eyewitness testimony is a first-hand account of a person who viewed a specific event (such as a crime). The famous false memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus explains that even though we think we may remember events well – such as a crime and the face of the criminal – memories are reconstructive and are therefore flawed (Loftus, 2013). This means that when a person tries to remember the past, they need to mentally recreate previously experienced events; so, a person has to “reconstruct” the past, which is a process that is definitely susceptible to errors. Also, in highly emotional situations such as a robbery, the heightened emotions can increase people’s susceptibility to false memories (Kaplin et al. 2016) This presents a major issue in a legal setting, because a victim may have to talk about something that might elicit very intense, negative emotions. The distortions and false memories that may ensue can cause people to be wrongly accused and convicted of crimes that they didn’t commit. To put the extent of this problem into perspective, within 300 cases of wrongful conviction with the supposed perpetrator later exonerated, about 75% were due to errors in faulty memory (May, 2013). Basically, our memory of highly emotional events is far from perfect!

How much trust would you put in your memory? Many people would probably argue that misremembering likely occurs about smaller events, such as being convinced they sent an email to a colleague about an important topic when they did not. However, the fact is this: false memories still occur about major events that a person may remember as critical or influential in their life. Memories of these important, potentially life-changing events are known as flashbulb memories; however, not all important events are flashbulb memories. A flashbulb memory is a highly vivid and detailed memory of a moment in which something emotionally stimulating occurred. Even though these memories appear to be accurate, they are about 25% correct (Nachson & Anat, 2003).

Dory (sort of) gets the problem at hand.

If I gave you a basic memory test and tested your memory pretty much right after, I bet you think you would perform very well. Now, I understand why you might think that, because maybe you believed you would have accurate memories if there was a small delay in time between being shown information and your memory being tested. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but people still form many false memories in this type of scenario. The Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) paradigm is a main method used to show that people create false memories about even super simple material that they think they should remember with ease (Roediger & McDermott, 1995). In this study, participants are presented with a list of words that are semantically related, which means that they are related by their meaning. All of the words on the list relate to one word that seems to connect all of the other words, however, this one word does not actually appear on the list. For example, a word list could have the words bed, rest, tired, night, (as well as many others) and the word absent from the list would be “sleep.” The word sleep is therefore called the critical lure, because it was the item that was not studied. After, participants are asked to say what words they remember studying. Guess what they oftenremember?” The word sleep! This is because people form strong associations between the aforementioned words and so they then falsely think that sleep was also presented. So, the main take-away from this is that there doesn’t need to be a complicated event with a huge delay between encoding and retrieval in order to form a false memory. We can create false memories in a matter of seconds or minutes! This again points to the reconstructive nature of false memories.

Basically, the DRM is a pretty cool tool for cognitive psychologists. Anyway, let’s now unpack a theory that helps explain why people are susceptible to forming false memories – even with simple memory tasks. The Activation Monitoring Theory is a dual (two) process model, which includes automatic activation of critical lures and controlled monitoring. Upon studying the list in the DRM, the items are automatically activated because they are related, which spreads to other semantically similar words like “sleep.” If something is automatically activated, it requires minimal effort and happens quickly and relatively easily. When participants try to later remember what they studied, they have to engage in a process called source monitoring, where they discern whether the activated words were in the list or just are related. This controlled source monitoring is more difficult and takes time. If a participant does not properly monitor, then they probably will remember the critical lure. Boom. False memory!

Since we’re now pros at understanding false memory, let’s recap what we talked about:

  • What false memory is
  • Eyewitness testimonies in relation to false memory
  • Flashbulb memories
  • DRM & Activation Monitoring Theory and how they show people still form false memories about simple information
  • Essentially, everything links back to this: our memory is not as accurate as we think!

I’ll leave you with some wise words from the best show Disney has ever brought to us. Hannah Montana once said, “nobody’s perfect” and that absolutely extends to our memories as well.

Hannah Montana is a source of great wisdom.



Kaplin, R., Damme, I. V., Levine, L., & Loftus, E. F. (2016). Emotion and false memory.  Emotion Review, 8-1, 8-13. doi: 10.1177/1754073915601228

Loftus, E. (2013). How reliable is your memory? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_loftus_the_fiction_of_memory

May, K. (2013). The Fiction of Memory: Elizabeth Loftus at TEDGlobal. TED Blog, TED. blog.ted.com/tk-elizabeth-loftus-at-tedglobal-2013/

Nachson, I., & Anat Z. (2003). Flashbulb and Factual Memories: The Case of Rabin’s Assassination. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17:5. doi: 10.1002/acp.887

Roediger, H. L., & McDermott, K. B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21(4), 803-814. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.21.4.803


  1. May 1st, 2018 at 15:22 | #1

    Interesting and informative post Amanda! I really enjoyed the in depth analysis of false memory beyond what we learned in class. It was important to me how you discussed how in emotional events increase the probability of false memories. I am curious if the everyday stressors like scheduling and exams could influence our memories as significantly as the robbery scenario. I know students are stressed out a lot and that seems like it would poorly influence our academic performance since stress increases probability of false memories. Additionally, this could be because of some of the seven sins of memory, misattribution and suggestibility influencing our thinking. Are our brains and study habits worse off because we are stressed and distorting memories without even knowing it?

  2. May 10th, 2018 at 17:40 | #2

    Great post! I really liked how you related false memory to eyewitness testimony! It’s amazing how unreliable our memories can be regarding facial recognition. It reminds me of the paper that talked about the difference between picture recognition and face recognition. In picture recognition, people had to recognize the same image of an individual whereas in face recognition they had to recognize the same individual in different images. People are way worse when they have to identify an individual in different pictures which would contribute a lot to misidentifying someone in eyewitness testimony. I realize this is just one contributing factor to that particular example of false memory, but it’s still very fascinating!

  3. larudd20
    May 14th, 2018 at 17:32 | #3

    Hey Amanda! I, too, really liked how you talked about how emotional events increase the chance of false memories later on. For my own blog post on rosy retrospection, I also did quite a bit of research on this topic. The research I found is in line with your findings that our memory of highly emotional events is far from perfect. Rosy retrospection refers to the way that we often remember and recollect past events in a more favorable light than when they actually occurred, and researchers think that this phenomenon is related to the emotional intensity of an event and how that affects later memory of it. I also like how you tied in your findings on false memory with the role it plays in eyewitness testimony – very interesting! I was also very interested in Elizabeth Loftus and what she found in her research. Reading your blog post reminded me of the TED talk we watched for class – the fallibility of memory – it’s crazy to think that we rely so much on our memories, yet in actuality they are scarily inaccurate!

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