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Understanding false memory

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Palace, crown, queen, prince, rule, England, George, throne, leader, chess, monarch, royal.

Believe it or not, this list of words can play a trick on a person’s memory.

Dr. Dawn McBride, Department of Psychology

Professor Dawn McBride, Department of Psychology

There are numerous studies that support how the memory plays tricks and influences decisions that can potentially have long-term effects. Professor of Psychology Dawn McBride has conducted years of research on why the memory works the way it does and the causes of false memory.

She began researching the Deese–Roediger–McDermott (DRM) paradigm, which is used to study false memory. “I wanted to know why this procedure creates false memory and what it tells us about how our memory works,” said McBride. The DRM methodology provides a list of themed words and the individual has to recall the words.

The DRM process has been shown to very easily create false memories–both through recognition or recalling lists. “Sleep is the most commonly used list,” said McBride. “Sleep is the lure (the common theme), and you give people things like dream, night, bed, slumber, blanket, and other words that in some way relate to ‘sleep’, and they will falsely remember sleep very easily through a list like that.” Without looking, pick out the word that was not on the original list above–palace, crown, queen, rule, king, prince, England, monarch, George, chess, throne, leader, royal.

The memory creates an associative relationship between the words and the lure. “When you read all of those words, it’s sort of activating a script for whatever the theme is that’s related to those words,” explained McBride. “We are creating a mini script based on our understanding of what those words all mean and how they are related by meaning.”

“It’s not like memory fades like a photograph over years of exposure.” –Dawn McBride

Once a person makes those associations based on past experiences and current understanding of how the world works, then the memory will refer back to them. “It’s helping us by using those associations and using that connection to other knowledge to help us try to remember,” added McBride. In the list from the beginning of the article, king is the lure. Many may remember seeing the word “king” even though it wasn’t listed, because all the other words in the list are related to the theme “king.”

Another area of false memory McBride studies is eyewitness testimony. “Eyewitness testimony contributes to quite a lot of convictions, especially in cases where they don’t have DNA evidence,” she said. “And when you have eyewitnesses saying ‘I am sure this is what happened,’ that’s what you go with.” There is research that focuses on how eye witnesses should be questioned and what kinds of lineups should be used to reduce these kinds of errors.

image of keys

Forgot where your keys are? Maybe you are not encoding well.

McBride noted that people need to be aware of false memory, even in benign cases “like when we argue with a spouse about what we think we have told them, but also in cases where it really is important and matters–such as when people testify about a crime that they experienced or witnessed.”

She has also studied failure of a prospective memory–which is when people have to remember to do something in the future. If something is encoded well into a person’s memory, they aren’t going to lose it, but some memories are not encoded well in the first place. “For example, if I walk around my house and not notice where things are because I haven’t encoded them, I may not remember in the future where I put my keys,” she said. “But, if we have encoded it well, and I always put my keys in the same place, then I know what that encoded place is, and I will be able to find my keys later–I’ll be able to remember because it was encoded.”

McBride also noted that people tend to forget where they park their car, because they don’t always park in the same place. “They might be remembering where they parked their car yesterday, which is interfering with the ability to remember where they parked today,” she said. “So there are lots of things that can keep us from retrieving, but it’s not like memory fades like a photograph over years of exposure.”

She explained that memory is not a video camera and it is not always accurate. “People tend to think we just record things exactly as they appear in our environment and sit in our memory until we go back and try to play the tape back,” said McBride. “It just doesn’t work that way. We have never seen any evidence that anybody’s memory works that way. It’s always reconstructive.” She added that every time a person retrieves a memory, it can change.

When people recover a memory, it’s a matter of retrieving a memory that is still stored. McBride said people don’t ever lose any part of their memories that are well encoded. “We might not be able to retrieve the memories at certain times because we don’t have the right cues, or there might be things interfering,” she explained. “Information doesn’t just disappear from our memory. If something really did happen, there is always a chance that someone will retrieve it.”

Dawn’s false memory research has been published in journals such as Memory & Cognition, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition: A Journal on Normal and Dysfunctional Development. She also co-authored the book Cognitive Psychology: Theory, Process, and Methodology.

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