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False Memories

What Are False Memories?

Although memories seem to be a solid, straightforward sum of who people are, strong evidence suggests that memories are actually quite complex, subject to change, and often unreliable. Memories can be reconstructed as people age and also as their worldview changes. People can falsely recall childhood events, and through effective suggestions, they can even create new false memories. People can also be tricked into remembering events that never happened, or change the details of things that really did happen.

A person’s malleable memories can entail the very mundane, such as when we second-guess whether the stove really is off or on, or they can entail the crucial, with foggy eyewitness recollections of a crime, perhaps. Research shows that we can be given false information and be convinced to believe that an event actually occurred, even if any such event did not occur. Given that recovered memories may be genuine, false, or a combination of the two, it is legitimate to question just how much of what you remember is real and how much is just a misperception.

A malleable memory can have especially dire consequences in legal settings. For example, when children are used as eyewitnesses or in the case of sexual abuse or in misidentification. One of the more influential researchers in this area, Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California at Irvine, has been known to work on numerous high-profile legal cases including that of serial killer Ted Bundy, the McMartin preschool sexual abuse allegations, indicted lawyer Scooter Libby, among many others.

How Misinformation Is Easily Spread

On the modern-day internet, anyone can plant a false memory. The source of the information may claim objectivity or impartiality, yet that can often be untrue. Misinformation, or fake news, is ubiquitous through doctored videos and photoshopped images as well as fabricated text; such misinformation especially latches onto viewers who harbor bias in favor of the message.

As science journalist Matthew Hutson writes in How Memory Became Weaponized, “False recollection of what we've seen and read and experienced hinders the ability to make informed decisions about policy and politicians. It drives social discord and character assassination. It also corrupts choices about our own health and well-being.” To prove this point, in one study, Elizabeth Loftus doctored images of well-known events, and found that a person’s recollection of even iconic events can indeed be altered.

How to Spot Fake News

  • Investigate the source of the information and whether the site is reputable
  • See who is listed in the “About” section or “Contact Us” page
  • Check the author and scrutinize the person's credibility
  • Is the author a real person?
  • Don’t fall for clickbait headlines, read the entire post
  • What is the purpose of the information?
  • Make sure the story is current and not lifted from old information
  • Check the accompanying links for references and citations
  • Search for more information on the claim
  • Doctored images are sometimes obvious and can be searched via image sourcing tools
  • Check the image credit

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