Are You Remembering Events That Never Occurred?

ILLUSIONS

Bugs Bunny doesn't belong in Disneyland, so why do people recall meeting the Warner Brothers icon during childhood trips to the theme park? Because of the power of suggestion. By merely reading advertisements that mimic personal experience, we may unconsciously change or augment our mental autobiography. "We could all be unwitting subjects in some sort of mass suggestibility experiment," says University of Washington researcher Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D., "just by being exposed to the thousands of ads that we encounter."

In a study recently presented to the American Psychological Society by Loftus and her colleague Jacquie Pickrell, Ph.D., 120 participants read Disneyland advertisements. Half the ads provided general information about the theme park and half specifically mentioned Bugs Bunny. One-third of the participants exposed to the Bugs advertisement "remembered" that the events in the ad had actually happened to them. Many even expanded on the false memory, linking Bugs to Disneyland experiences not described in the ad.

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Not just old recollections are suspect: we can register memories inaccurately during the initial storage process as well. A study by Sharon Hannigan, Ph.D., of Boston College, and Mark Reinitz, Ph.D., of the University of Puget Sound, found that memory "illusions" often result from the impulse to craft coherent narratives. Participants viewed slides depicting sequences of events, such as a woman removing a piece of fruit from the bottom of a pile, followed by the entire pile of fruit on the floor. A significant percentage of participants falsely remembered viewing the "cause" slide corresponding to the pictured "effect"--even if they had never viewed this slide before--a process called "causal-inference error."

The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition earlier this year.

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