Home > Uncategorized > How reliable was that awesome memory anyways? False memories and how they happen.

How reliable was that awesome memory anyways? False memories and how they happen.

Have your friends ever enthusiastically asked you if you remembered that time they hit that home run in the bottom of the 9th or told that killer joke in class? Chances are once they’re done describing the event you can totally remember it as well and even remember how much you cheered or how you couldn’t stop laughing. The event feels so real to you now and you can’t believe how you didn’t immediately remember it before, but even though you both remember it so vividly that’s no guarantee that it happened the way you remember.

Do you remember the time you went to college? Do you really?

Hold on one second though, there’s no way your friend didn’t hit that home run to win your baseball game; you can clearly remember how happy you were and how the whole team stormed the plate to congratulate him. This is a great example of a false memory. A false memory is simply a memory that did not actually happen, or happened in a way very differently than remembered. Our memories are not nearly as a accurate as we make them out to be, and unfortunately it is far too easy to misremember an event, or remember something that never happened in this first place.

Now there are two parts to these misremembered events: your friend remembering things that in reality didn’t happen at all the way they remembered, and you remembering the same false memory of the past as a result of your friend talking about it in the present. Despite the faith that we place in memory, both of these occurrences are extremely common. There are two main times that memories are altered, either when they happened or when we recollect them. It is almost impossible to notice everything around you, you simply can’t pay attention to everything at once, as evidenced by missing a turn while driving or not noticing a friend in a crowd. This inability to attend to all details can lead to gaps in memory that the brain fills in through prior knowledge and what it expects to see. Errors when recollecting memories are also hard to notice, as when our memories are altered in the present they seem like they have always been that way. We are not able to realize how new information affects memory, as it’s reconstructive nature integrates current knowledge into old. In a related study, participants viewed a film of automobile accidents and were then asked, one week later, if they saw broken glass in the video. Different participants were given different questions, though, which utilized varying verbs such as smashed, collided, bumped, or contacted. It was found that for the more violent verbs such as smashed or collided participants were far more likely to report that there was broken glass in the video, while in reality there was no broken glass in any of the videos (Loftus & Palmer, 1974). This effect shows both how new information can alter memories in the past, and how we are uncertain of every detail of memories, such as the presence of glass in a video of an automobile crash. 

To cognitive scientists studying memory, these occurrences of false memories are very interesting, as they show a lot about how memory works. In fact many papers have been published relating to the formation of flashbulb memories, a specific type of false memory. One such paper focuses on Former President George. W. Bush’s recollection of hearing about the terrorist attacks on the twin towers on 9/11. This paper examines three recorded examples of President Bush speaking about how he heard about the events of 9/11. The three recollections differ in details between them, and all include him viewing footage of the attacks before would have been possible.

President Bush receiving news of the attacks on the Twin Towers

 Just like the rest of us, Bush is not immune to the creation of false memories and especially given the overload of information in the days following 9/11 it was easy enough to misremember the events. Another study supports this, where researchers interviewed participants for up to ten years after the events of 9/11 in an effort to study people’s recollections of the day (Hirst et al, 2015). Hirst found that participants had high rates of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in their memories of the day despite participants being able to vividly remember emotions and other details, likely caused by the information overload in the days following and frequent recurrence of the topic in the years following.

Now 9/11 was, for most people, a significant event with a lot of external information coming from the news or other people, altering people’s perception of it, but even for less significant memories their recollection is not always reliable. We are prone to misremembering events both large and small. Many of these misremembered events are due to misleading information given after the supposed event had taken place, a process which is examined in a study by Hyman et al, in 1995. This study involved sending surveys to the parents of college students asking them to describe certain childhood memories involving their children. These surveys were then used to study how well the college students could remember childhood events, but one or two false event was added onto the sequence of true events that researchers described to the students.  After the first meeting where students were described the events, researchers asked them to think about the events and see if they could recall any more details about them. The results of this second meeting showed that around 25% of the students had created a false memory of the false event, showing that through misleading information in the present, memories of the past could be altered. Given this, our ability to determine what has actually happened and what has not when a friend recalls an event is much more unreliable than we’d like to think

Feeling sleepy yet?

The field of cognitive psychology has many different explanations and theories to why we create false memories, but one of the most widely accepted ways to measure false memories is the Deese-Roediger-Mcdermott paradigm(DRM paradigm). In their 1995 study they presented subjects with a list of 20 words that are all related in meaning to a certain word, called the critical lure, that is not present on the list(such as bed, snore, and dream all being related to the word sleep). Participants were asked to recall what the words on the list were after a delay, and frequently falsely remembered that the critical lure was on the list. The creation of this false memory of the critical lure being on the list of 20 words, and the inability to realize this, shows just how fallible our memory is. 

Through all of this it is pretty clear that our memories are not to be trusted, and that is all too easy to form a false memory based on a story from a friend, or even information as detached as the news. Coupled with our inability to realize or truly understand how unreliable in general or in terms of a specific event our memory is has the potential to cause many problems. Eyewitness testimonies are heavily relied upon by the justice system to carry out the law, but given the fallibility of memory, especially considering the amount of information being presented to witnesses over the course of the trial, these memories can hardly be trusted. It is all too easy for leading questions or bias to trigger the creation of a false memory, leading to innocent people being convicted for crimes that they did not commit or simply did not happen the way eyewitnesses remember it, to no fault of their own. In less serious situations, tying back to the imaginary home run, this is how false memories are created, and spread, as all it takes is one individual who misremembers something and spreads this false memory to others, who in turn slowly warp their existing memories to accommodate for this new information. So perhaps next time your friend excitedly turns to you to recount their glorious sporting triumph and even if you do remember it, you might want to think twice about how good at sports they are anyways.



  • Hyman, I. E., Husband, T. H. and Billings, F. J. (1995), False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9: 181-197. doi:10.1002/acp.2350090302
  • 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
  • Hirst, W., Phelps, E. A., Meksin, R., Vaidya, C. J., Johnson, M. K., Mitchell, K. J., . . . Olsson, A. (2015). A ten-year follow-up of a study of memory for the attack of September 11, 2001: Flashbulb memories and memories for flashbulb events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,144(3), 604-623. doi:10.1037/xge0000055
  • 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 Behavior, 13(5), 585-589. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(74)80011-3


  1. mrscho20
    May 15th, 2018 at 17:50 | #1

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post and learning a bit more about memory, and how unreliable it truly is. One of the studies that you brought up mentioned that 25% of a student population created false memories of an event. This was shocking to learn about, and made me question my own memory. How many of my own memories are significantly different from what actually occurred at a specific event? You brought up the point that what we hear from our friends and peers when talking about an event can change our own memory to be congruent with theirs. It is also important to note that the media can have the effect. I think that it is especially important that news outlets take this into consideration in the news that they report, making sure that it is accurate.

  2. macort20
    May 17th, 2018 at 15:49 | #2

    Hi Ellison, great post! I really enjoyed gaining a deeper understanding of flashbulb memories. I remember fondly the unit in class on memory distortions and flashbulb memories. I appreciate how you integrated attention into your post about memory. You mention that we cannot possibly pay attention and notice everything that is presently going on around us, so how can we remember it if we don’t originally attend to it? It seems as though limited attentional capacity has come up many times throughout this course in several units such as longterm memory and learning about eyewitness testimony. The fact that we simply cannot process all that is happening in every moment makes it easier for us to mix up details of important and emotional events, leading to inaccurate reporting. Also I find it important that you brought the concept of interference into your post. When you mention the “information overload” in the days following the 9/11 attacks. Interference is a huge player in distorting our memories, adding massive amount of information that we mix up with the actual event.

  3. May 17th, 2018 at 23:36 | #3

    Hello Ellison,

    The unit on memories was definitely my favorite so it was fun to learn even more about memory distortions. I think your bit on attention was very important as our inability to attend to everything may explain the need for reconstructive memory because gaps need to be filled in. Of course this creates difficulties and problems for eyewitness testimony, but hopefully as more people become educated on this issue people will be less likely to trust eyewitness testimony.

You must be logged in to post a comment.