The Consequences of False Memories

Woman looking at framed picture

Tom Merton / Getty Images

False memories are misremembered, distorted, or fabricated recollections of past events. Such memories can be trivial, such as mistakenly remembering where you put your car keys, but they can also be much more serious.

For example, false memories of crimes and sexual abuse can have serious consequences for both the accuser and the accused. In most instances, false memories are less serious. However, they do happen with surprising frequency.

Researchers have found that most people hold false memories of many things, ranging from their personal preferences and choices to memories of events from earlier in their lives.

This article explores some of the ways that false memories can impact behavior. It also explores some strategies you can use to minimize the impact of false or distorted memories.

Effects of False Memories

False memories can have a wide range of effects. Mistaken or distorted memories can affect day-to-day life, leading to mistakes at work, at home, and in other important areas.

Research has also found that people often hold distorted or false memories about significant historical events that they witnessed, which can also contribute to what's known as the Mandela Effect. While people often describe these "flashbulb memories" in vivid detail, comparing the details of these memories against historical records often reveals significant flaws in these recollections.

The following are just a few of the ways that researchers have shown false memories can alter behavior.

False Memories Can Impact Your Eating Habits

Studies have shown that intentionally planting false memories could potentially help people stick to healthy behaviors. For example, researchers created a false memory by suggesting that participants had become ill after eating certain foods as children.

In other cases, false memories were created suggesting that people had tried certain foods and loved them. Subsequently, participants changed their behaviors and attitudes toward foods influenced by false memories.

These results indicate that not only can false memories be created quite easily through suggestion—but these incorrect memories can also have a very real impact on behavior.

Some researchers have suggested that using deception to implant false memories could be used to create positive behavior changes such as eating a more balanced diet or exercising more. This technique might also help alleviate anxiety or treat psychological traumas.

False Memories Complicate Choices

False memories can also have an impact on choice-supported remembering. In many cases, people misremember their choices, complicating the decision-making process.

Research has shown that this can impact various decisions, including those that people make at the end of their lives, such as the type of treatment they want, the kind of care they wish to have, and whether or not they want rescue interventions to be performed.

Living wills are often touted as a sure-fire way to ensure that end-of-life wishes are observed. A living will is a legal document designed to relate wishes in the event that the individual becomes seriously ill and unable to communicate. This document often includes specific information about the type of treatment, care, and interventions that a person does or does not want to have if they become terminally ill.

While many people create these documents and assume that they will recall what is in them, evidence suggests that this is not the case. Research has shown that most people misremember their original choices about end-of-life decisions.

Recap

Evidence suggests that false memories can impact behavior, including those related to health. People are also prone to misremembering their own choices, which can have an effect on their future decisions.

Serious Consequences of False Memories

False memories have also been implicated in several serious cases, some fatal. In such instances, false memories have had a dramatic and disturbing impact on people's lives.

  • False memories have led to lawsuits and financial judgments against therapy providers when false repressed memories of traumatic events have been uncovered in therapy.
  • False memories have also led to false accusations and false convictions for various crimes, including sexual abuse. Some defendants who have been convicted of crimes based on false recollections have had their convictions overturned.
  • False memories have been implicated in a number of hot car deaths in which parents have mistakenly left children locked in cars, with deadly results.

People often read such stories and immediately think, "It could never happen to me. I have an excellent memory." However, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Research has demonstrated that everyone is susceptible to false memories, even people with exceptionally good memory.

How to Prevent False Memories

The problem with false memories is that they are very difficult to spot once formed. They don't stand out from other memories and are instead seamlessly woven into the fabric of our remembered experiences.

In other words, there is no simple way to distinguish an accurate memory from a false one. Even the most vivid, clear, and distinct memories can be faulty.

Researchers have identified a few different strategies that might help prevent false memories from forming or help you distinguish the true from the false. Some strategies may help identify or prevent false memories:

  • Use imagery: Researchers have found that when people use imagery to create a visual representation of information, their memory for that information is better and less susceptible to false memories.
  • Search your memory: Experts also suggest that selectively searching memory for mistakes and falsehoods can sometimes be helpful.
  • Evaluate and corroborate memories: If you find a memory that you aren't sure about, evaluating it based on your expectations and then collaborating it using other people's recollections or other historical data can help verify or disprove it.

One of the best ways to combat false memories is to be aware that they exist. Memory does not work like a video camera that records every detail exactly as it occurred and perfectly preserves it.

Memories are reconstructed every time you recall them, which means that errors don't just happen; they are quite common.

A Word From Verywell

While we sometimes think of false memories as relatively rare, researchers have found that such memories are pretty common and easily formed. Perhaps more importantly, experts have discovered that even those with excellent memories are susceptible to forming false memories. The key is to realize that your memory is vulnerable to misinformation and that perhaps you cannot place as much trust in it as you might think.

Was this page helpful?
11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hunt K, Chittka L. False memory susceptibility is correlated with categorisation ability in humans. F1000Res. 2014;3:154. doi:10.12688/f1000research.4645.2

  2. Shaw J. The memory illusion. Scientific American.

  3. Nash RA, Berkowitz SR, Roche S. Public attitudes on the ethics of deceptively planting false memories to motivate healthy behaviorAppl Cogn Psychol. 2016;30(6):885-897. doi:10.1002/acp.3274

  4. Lind M, Visentini M, Mäntylä T, Del Missier F. Choice-supportive misremembering: A new taxonomy and review. Front Psychol. 2017;8:2062. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02062

  5. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services National Institute on Aging. Advanced care planning: Healthcare directives.

  6. Loftus EF. Creating false memories. Scientific American.

  7. Diamond DM. When a child dies of heatstroke after a parent or caretaker unknowingly leaves the child in a car: How does it happen and is it a crime?. Med Sci Law. 2019;59(2):115-126. doi:10.1177/0025802419831529

  8. Patihis L, Frenda SJ, Leport AK, et al. False memories in highly superior autobiographical memory individuals. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2013;110(52):20947-52. doi:10.1073/pnas.1314373110

  9. Shaw J. What experts wish you knew about false memories. Scientific American.

  10. Oliver MC, Bays RB, Zabrucky KM. False memories and the DRM paradigm: effects of imagery, list, and test type. J Gen Psychol. 2016;143(1):33-48. doi:10.1080/00221309.2015.1110558

  11. Gallo DA, Lampinen JM. Three Pillars of False Memory Prevention. Vol 1. Dunlosky J, Tauber SK, eds. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199336746.013.11