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Is That Memory of Yours Even Real?

Research shows how often we adopt someone else’s story as our own.

Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Have you, or someone you know, ever been the victim of memory theft? Has someone ever stolen one of your memories and told the story as his or her own? You might be surprised by how frequently this happens. I was surprised by the results of a recent survey concerning memory borrowing; it's apparently very common.

I’ve often argued that when we tell stories with one another, we gradually settle on a consensus version. Eventually we agree on what happened and everyone tells the same memory of a shared experience. Developing a shared narrative is the normal way we remember with coworkers, friends, and family. (Of course, there are also times when we argue about the past, do not reach a shared memory, and instead have a memory of the event and the disagreement.)

But shared memories may also reflect criminal activities: People apparently borrow and steal memories from one another. In the recently reported study, Brown, Caderao, Fields, and Marsh (2015) asked people about borrowed memories, and found strong evidence for the phenomenon. More than half of respondents had heard someone tell their own story as if the event had happened to the storyteller; that is, the thieves told the story as if the event had happened to them. And just about as many confessed to being memory thieves themselves, as almost half acknowledged that they had been a perpetrator, telling someone else’s story as if it had happened to them.

Some stories are so good that they need to be told, even if it isn’t really yours. We appear to be surrounded by memory thieves, but, not surprisingly, most of the respondents in the study reported that they had been in disputes concerning ownership of the memory: They acknowledged disagreeing with someone over to whom an event had happened.

In most of the instances reported by Brown and colleagues, people were aware that they had borrowed someone else’s memory. But some of these incidents must represent times when people honestly, but mistakenly, believed the memory and story was their own.

My students and I have studied these types of memory crimes (Hyman, Roundhill, Werner, & Rabiroff, 2014). We had pairs of people study partially overlapping sets of information. Some of the information was seen by both participants. But other information was only seen by one person. Thus each person studied some shared and some unique information. The pair then engaged in collaborative remembering—they worked together to remember the information they had studied separately. The twist was a later memory test in which the individuals had to identify who had originally studied which information: Was this something both of you saw, only you studied, or only your partner studied? The participants at this point became memory thieves, claiming information seen only by their partners as their own memory.

Thus we have two forms of memory theft: There are times when a person steals a memory, but remains aware that they are just borrowing someone else’s story. But there are also times when we adopt someone else’s memory as our own, believing the event happened to us.

We often worry today about identify theft, when someone steals enough information about you to open or drain credit accounts in your name. But when it comes to memories, we're all identity thieves. We adopt someone else’s stories and versions of shared events as our own. Part of who I am is what I remember about my past. But some of my memories may not really be mine; they may be stories that I have stolen and adopted as my own.

We frequently display an egocentric memory bias—if I remember this, then it is my memory. I become a composite of my own original memories and those that I have adopted from friends and family. I become an identity thief.

Brown, A. S., Caderao, K. C., Fields, L. M., & Marsh, E. J. (2015). Borrowing personal memories. Applied Cognitive Psychology. On-line release.

Hyman, I. E., Jr., Roundhill, R., Werner, K., & Rabiroff, C. (2014). Collaboration inflation: Egocentric source monitoring errors following collaborative remembering. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 293-299.

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