Home > Memory > Here’s a Suggestion: Don’t Trust Your (False) Memory

Here’s a Suggestion: Don’t Trust Your (False) Memory

I want you to think back to a childhood memory. Maybe it’s your third birthday party, the first day of kindergarten, or learning how to ride a bike. Can you remember any details? What you were wearing, who you were with, or how you felt? Now, how accurate do you think those details are? If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard different versions of the same story about that day a thousands times by your parents, siblings, or friends. There may also be tons of pictures from the event that you look at from time to time, even now. So that means my memory of the event is pretty accurate, right? Interestingly enough, cognitive psychology tells us that the opposite is true–there are many things that can alter your memory (we’ll get to one of those things in just a bit). This can mean changing minor details, or even creating large portions of a memory that just didn’t happen. This extreme divergence from the truth is called a false memory.

That’s quite the false memory

A false memory is a recollection of an event that is either highly distorted or a complete (unintentional) fabrication. This isn’t about simply forgetting what happened. People with false memories believe that their misconstrued ideas of what occurred are accurate—and often with high confidence, too. So why do we have false memories? How does our brain allow us to have such confidence in the authenticity of events that never actually happened? Despite what you might be thinking, it is not the result of some mind control or hypnotism. So let’s look into how memory works to find out exactly what it is.

So how does memory work? When we learn things, information gets encoded and stored in our memory. We are then generally able to access, or retrieve, that information at a later time. But the information we retrieve is not identical to that which we encode. This is because our memory is reconstructive. That is, memory is not an exact copy of what we perceive or experience. Each time we retrieve a memory, we have to recreate it, meaning it is influenced by other things in our brain like our expectations and information we learned after the fact (Roediger & DeSoto, 2015). So even if you remember something, many details of the memory are probably not entirely accurate. Major errors in memory retrieval result in false memories, and one of the key causes of these errors is called suggestibility.

So what is suggestibility? Image that you’re driving home from work and stop at an intersection. All of a sudden, you see a car accident happen right in front of you, and a police officer asks you some questions about what you witnessed. The officer asks you how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other. After some thought, you answer with 40 miles per hour. Seems like a pretty straightforward question, right? Not exactly. The use of the word “smashed” in the question acts as a suggestion—when you reconstructed the memory of the accident, you were prompted to imagine the cars smashing together. Due to the extreme nature of the word “smashed,” you would probably report the speed of the cars as higher, compared to if a less extreme word was used, such as “contacted” (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). This means that the word “smashed” actually influenced you memory of the event. This is a classic example of suggestibility—receiving new information after an event that alters your memory of what occurred.

So a few details of an event can be a little off. What’s the big deal? It’s that suggestion doesn’t only change small details. It can also lead you to believe in events that did not actually happen at all. Loftus and Pickrell (1995) conducted a study to show just that.

I think I’d remember getting lost here…

In this study, participants thought they were being tested on their memory for childhood events that their parents shared with the experimenter. They participated in multiple interviews, in which they were asked to recall each story. Little did they know, one of the four stories—in which they were lost in a shopping mall when they were five—was actually made up by the experimenter. Unsurprisingly, none of the participants recalled getting lost in a shopping mall during the first interview. However, when they came back for a second interview several days later, they were asked to recall the same four stories to see if their memory had improved. This time, some of the participants did in fact recall getting lost in a shopping mall. They even embellished on the details, giving information about how they felt, what their rescuer was wearing, and what it was like being reunited with their parents (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). So how did they remember details for an event that didn’t happen?

The answer is, yet again, the power of suggestibility. Just being exposed to the idea of being lost in a shopping mall planted a suggestion into the participants’ minds. Loftus and Pickrell propose that this suggestion first leaves a memory trace in the mind. Even if the participant at first did not recall being lost, the suggestion still linked to other information stored in memory—stories of others getting lost, for example. Over time, participants would forget that “getting lost” was just a prompt, and memories of being in malls would combine with images of being lost. So during later interviews, when participants were asked to recall getting lost in a mall, mental representations of malls and getting lost came to mind, a combination of which resulted in a false memory of getting lost in a mall (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995).

Photoshop skills on point

This isn’t the only way that suggestion can create false memories—it can also do so through images. One study (Wade, Garry, Read, Lindsay, 2002) was conducted similarly to the one discussed above, only the researchers this time used photographs to prompt memory of an event instead of a verbal cue. In particular, they used three real photographs of the participants, and one photograph of them photoshopped into a hot air balloon. After attending multiple interviews trying to recall all four events from the photographs, some participants actually recalled flying in a hot air balloon (Wade et al., 2002).

So we know that suggestion can plant the seed for false memories, but what do you need for them to actually develop? According to Loftus and other psychologists (2003), the creation of false memories is actually pretty systematic. First you need plausibility; the fake event in question must be at least somewhat realistic. For example, this is easily done with pictures as suggestions—most people will trust that an image is real (Wade et al., 2002). The next step is getting the individual to believe that they personally experience the event. For this you may need to employ tactics like suggestive feedback (i.e., providing and/or verifying false details) and guided imagery techniques (i.e., telling the person to picture themselves going back in time). This way, individuals will not only believe that the event happened, but will also “remember” it.

So what’s the harm in having false memories? To make a long answer short, there’s a lot. One of the most prevalent in society today is the possible inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony. And when I say possible, I actually mean probable. The fact of the matter is that there are countless wrongful convictions, and the majority are caused by flawed eyewitness testimony (Technical Working Group for Eyewitness Evidence, 1999). These witnesses’ misconstrued recollections stem from suggestion, but then blossom into full blown false memories (Loftus, 2003). False memories and, in particular, those of eyewitnesses has become part of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus’ life work. She has investigated witnesses’ statements and accusations, coming to the conclusion that they often involve false memories. However, their accounts of events are always detailed and highly emotional, making them highly believable. Imagine a woman on the stand vividly recounting the child abuse she had suffered at the hands of a man sitting across the courtroom. Our knowledge of suggestibility and false memories tells us that we should think twice about believing her testimony. And that should be the take home message here–just because a memory is detailed and presented with confidence, doesn’t mean that it is true. That’s the power of suggestibility in creating false memories.


Loftus, E. F. (2003). Make-believe memories. American Psychologist, 58, 867-873. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.58.11.867

Loftus, E. F., Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: an example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior13, 585-589.

Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725. doi: https://doi.org/10.3928/0048-5713-19951201-07

Roediger, H. L. & DeSoto, K. A. (2015). Psychology of reconstructive memory. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences20, 50-55. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.51016-2

Technical Working Group for Eyewitness Evidence. (1999). Eyewitness evidence: A guide for law enforcement. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

Wade, K. A., Garry, M., Read, J. D., Lindsay, D. S. (2002). A picture is worth a thousand lies: using false photographs to create false childhood memories. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9, 597-603. doi: https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03196318




  1. ylian
    May 16th, 2018 at 16:14 | #1

    Hi Nina, I found this post really interesting! It really made me think about some memories I have about my childhood. Some of them are so vivid, but now I’m not sure if they are accurate since these stories were told by my parents so many times. Your post also reminded me of other errors in memory since you mentioned suggestibility and I wrote on absent-mindedness. As opposed to an error in memory retrieval, absent-mindedness is an error in encoding. In the case of absent-mindedness, the problem is not false memories because memories weren’t encoded in the first place, and we forget because we weren’t paying attention.

  2. macort20
    May 17th, 2018 at 16:28 | #2

    Hey, great post! I learned a lot from your writing. I was able to connect a lot of your message about false memories with my post about confabulations. These two occurrences are definitely related but are frequently clumped together as the same thing, which they are not. One concept that you touched upon in your post that is actually true for confabulations also, is the fact that they are unintentional. In addition, the general idea of false memories also apply to confabulations, memories that have been distorted in some way and now presented to the person as an accurate memory. However the cause of each is where these concepts differ. You mention some causes go fall memories being suggestibility (new information being added to one’s memory as if it happened at the event) and simply forgetting. Whereas a confabulation arises usually in someone with a brain injury or a condition such as dementia.

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