Home > Uncategorized > There is a very high chance you Confabulated a (false) Memory

There is a very high chance you Confabulated a (false) Memory

When I was four years old, I accidentally set myself on fire. I vividly remember going up close to a candle and the next thing I knew, the front of my shirt was engulfed in a flame. I then remember screaming for my parents, who emerged from opposite sides of our apartment and managed to put the fire out. However, my mum remembers this story quite differently. Her narration goes, “You were trying to put out the flame of a candle, so you used your shirt to help you. It then caught on fire, and you screamed, so your father and I who were in the same room, ran out together and put the fire out.”

So now the question is, which version is right? While they both contain the same big picture, the smaller details are quite different. Now I’m sure I’m not the first person to argue with my mum over whose version of a story is more accurate, but you would think that with a reasonably traumatic moment like that, both of us would remember it better.

We may have a gut feeling that our version of a story is correct, but it may not be as reliable                                                                                as we believe.

Unfortunately, as much as we may think, our memories are not all that reliable. Even if something monumental or traumatic happens in your life, there are bound to be little details that are altered even if it’s a memory you constantly come back to. This is because our memories are actually reconstructive! As memories become more distant, small gaps will start to appear within the memory itself. Due to this, our brain makes a conscious effort to fill in these gaps with information that fits in the context of the memory which is what causes the little differences from what actually happened.

This process of memory gaps being filled with misconstrued, distorted or even made-up information is called confabulation! There are actually two different types of confabulation, spontaneous and provoked. Spontaneous confabulations occur when recalling information or memories, just like our scenario above, but they tend to occur in those who have experienced brain injuries like amnesia or dementia. However, provoked confabulations are a different story. These happen to anyone when asked a direct question that then provokes a false memory. In fact, these two types of confabulations have completely different mechanisms, meaning that they are entirely separate from one another.

Example of an eyewitness interview where provoked                              confabulations could easily occur.

So why should you care? Clearly, spontaneous confabulations take place without us doing anything and seem unavoidable for certain individuals. Provoked confabulations, however, can be quite dangerous and damaging. The most significant place where provoked confabulations can negatively impact someone is in a police investigation. Questioning a witness is a crucial step to solving crimes. Eyewitness interviews can provide details on a suspect that could lead to them being caught. But what if provoked confabulations become involved and impact a witnesses statement? The wrong person could be convicted for a crime which would not only ruin their life but would also mean the true threat is still on the loose.

Provoked confabulations can occur two ways during an eyewitness interview, either through the way a question is formed or through something as simple as confirmatory feedback. Confirmatory feedback is when someone acknowledges and responds to what you may be saying. So responses such as saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or even a nod or head shake, all vital communication tools, can lead to provoked confabulations. In addition to this, these provoked confabulations can have long-lasting impacts on someone’s memory of an event. Research has found that provoked confabulations can directly influence the creation of false memories up to a week!

Let’s use an example to further understand just how provoked confabulations work. Michelle, an honest woman in her early 30s, is unfortunately caught in the middle of a crime as a witness of a robbery at a store in her town. She happens to be the sole witness of the crime so the police interview her to so find the suspect. The police may ask her what details she remembers, and may even ask her to create a timeline of her day. However, let’s say that there has been a young brunette haired white man, Taylor, wreaking havoc all over town and the police are yet to catch him. The police may use this opportunity to finally condemn Taylor even though there is no hard evidence against him. As we learned above, they could do this through confirmatory feedback in response to what Michelle conveys or by asking questions that specifically pertain to Taylor such as “the suspect was white, wasn’t he?” or “was the suspect brunette.” Questions like these could easily influence Michelle’s memory, causing her to confabulate even if she remembers the robbery fairly well. Now, this situation is assuming the worst in the police, but even if there is no malicious intent behind the police’s questions and actions, they still may impact the story she recalls.

Now you may be thinking; clearly, Michelle is lying! But this here is the power of confabulation. The person whose mind has confabulated truly believes that what they remember is accurate. Confabulation has even been dubbed “honest lying” due to this. In fact, these false memories are so believable to the person who confabulated that it can even increase their confidence levels, which results in a metacognitive error. Metacognition is the ability to understand one’s awareness of their thoughts. So usually, better metacognition means that confidence and precision are directly related, but in the case of confabulation, accuracy is extremely questionable. Confidence can be a potent tool. As explained by social psychologist Elizabeth Brimacombe in her ted talk, confidence can play a massive role in eyewitness testimony by making people seem more trustworthy and reliable. Confidence can even make fabricated memories remain in someone’s mind for up to two months! Moreover, if a scenario appears likely to have happened, we are more willing to reduce our criteria to make a judgement of how accurate this information is.

Now let’s say a month has passed since the robbery. Taylor is now the main suspect and due to the lack of hard evidence, the case has gone to court where Michelle must serve as a witness. Since we now know that confabulations can last up to two months, if the questions that the police have asked in the initial eyewitness interview caused Michelle to confabulate, she would still be delivering the same altered story a month later. Also, since we know that people believe their confabulations to be true, Michelle would most likely seem very confident in her answers which could easily convince the jury that Taylor committed the crime. In addition to this, it is most likely that Taylor’s previous misdemeanours would be mentioned in court, making it seem more plausible that Taylor is the suspect. In the end, even if Taylor is not the culprit, he could easily be convicted due to how influential confabulations can be.

Also known as “honest lying,” confabulations can          make it difficult to accurately decipher real from                                 fabricated memories.

Evidently, the consequences of provoked confabulation in such circumstances could be severe. If an eyewitness remembers a couple of details differently to what happened, the wrong person may get convicted. Another situation could be that the case never gets solved since the recalled details do not match with the reality of the event. Unfortunately, confabulation has impacted real-life crimes, where some have even been completely fabricated! In one such case, criminal psychologist Julia Shaw was involved with an investigation where two sisters reported that a female family friend had sexually assaulted them. However, after a lot of interviews and questions, Shaw concluded that the stories the sister were telling are not 100% true and that they were false memories. However, had no one been there to analyze their answers, an innocent person could have gone to jail.

Clearly, it’s imperative that measures be developed to prevent provoked confabulations from impacting innocent people. This could be as simple as creating strict uniform guidelines on how the police should question suspects, preventing the ability to manipulate questions to target a specific person. Another method could be asking witnesses to provide a confidence statement where a witness must rate how confident they are at the time of identifying a suspect. This would allow for confidence changes to be taken into account. Another solution, though it may be slightly more costly, is to have a criminal psychologist like Julia Shaw involved in all investigations so that they may examine the potential pitfalls of an eyewitness testimony.

So can we still trust our memories?

Yes, we can! Despite some of the inconsistencies that we may run into, our memories are still incredibly powerful tools. They make our lives easier to navigate. Without them, we would constantly have to relearn simple things like how to brush your teeth or your friend’s names, but like anything else, they are prone to their weaknesses. It is also important to keep in mind that those who have memory shortfalls like dementia are unable to prevent falling victim to confabulations making it a part of their reality.

So the next time you are arguing with someone over who recalls a memory more accurately, just remember that there is a very high chance both you have confabulated.

No matter what we do, confabulations are everywhere, but        we can prevent them from impacting other peoples lives.

 

References

Bryce, E. (2017, October 31). False memories and false confessions: The psychology of imagined crimes. Wired. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/false-memory-syndrome-false-confessions-memories

Hartnett, K. (2015, February 27). How to make eyewitness evidence more reliable – The Boston Globe. Retrieved from https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/02/27/how-make-eyewitness-evidence-more-reliable/0VcxPJW3F996nXSMmaNI5L/story.html

TedxTalks (2014). Social influence and eyewitness testimony. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzpgyIKBS40

Wade, K. A., Green, S. L., & Nash, R. A. (2009). Can fabricated evidence induce false eyewitness testimony? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(7), 899-908. doi:10.1002/acp.1607

Wiggins, A. (2020). Confabulation. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK536961/

Zaragoza, M. S., Payment, K. E., Ackil, J. K., Drivdahl, S. B., & Beck, M. (2001). Interviewing Witnesses: Forced Confabulation and Confirmatory Feedback Increase False Memories. Psychological Science, 12(6), 473-477. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00388

Images:

Buzz Lightyear and Woody – Confabulations Everywhere. (2020). Retrieved from https://memegenerator.net/instance/64934951/x-x-everywhere-confabulations-confabulations-everywhere

I know I’m right But I don’t know how to prove it or what to say – Mean Girls Meme. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://makeameme.org/meme/i-know-im-5cc1bd

Police Interview. (2020). Retrieved from https://andrewfrederickblog.wordpress.com/2019/10/15/ive-attended-a-police-station-for-a-voluntary-interview-but-been-arrested-is-this-lawful/

What if my false memory is a false memory of a false memory?: Tumblr. (2018). Retrieved from https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1026134-tumblr

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