The Consequences of False Memories

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In recent years there have been a number of stories in the news revealing the sometimes devastating impact that false memories can have. False memories of crimes and sexual abuse can have serious consequences for both the accuser and the accused, but most instances of false memories are less serious and happen with surprising frequency. Researchers have found that most of us hold false memories for many things, ranging from our own personal preferences and choices to memories of events from earlier in our lives.

So what impact do these false memories have on our behaviors?

False Memories Can Impact Your Eating Habits

In one experiment on how false memories impact behavior, researchers created a false memory by suggesting that participants had become ill after eating egg salad as a child. Afterward, the participants were presented with four different types of sandwiches, including an egg salad sandwich.

Surprisingly, those who had been convinced by the false memory of becoming ill as a child showed a change in behavior and attitude toward the egg salad option. Those who had been influenced by the false memory avoided the egg salad and gave it lower ratings than the other participants who had not developed the false memory. Four months later, these participants still showed the same avoidance of the egg salad option.

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

False Memories Complicate End of Life Decisions

False memories can also have an impact on the decisions 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 our 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 he or she becomes terminally ill.

Do living wills accurately convey end of life decisions? According to one study published in the APA journal Health Psychology, these directives may not be as effective as many believe because preferences can change over time without the individual being aware of these changes.

"Living wills are a noble idea and can often be very helpful in decisions that must be made near the end of life," explained Peter Ditto of the University of California-Irvine in a news release. "But the notion that you can just fill out a document and all your troubles will be solved, a notion that is frequently reinforced in the popular media, is seriously misguided."

In the study, 401 participants over the age of 65 were asked about which life-sustaining treatment they would want, such as CPR and tube feedings, if they were seriously ill. Twelve months later, these individuals were asked to recall the choices they had made in the first interview.

Approximately one-third of the respondents had changed their wishes over the course of the year. Surprisingly, 75% of these individuals falsely remembered their original views on various end-of-life treatments. Researchers also interviewed individuals who held the authority to make such decisions in the event that the participants were no longer able. These individuals showed even lower awareness of changes in their loved ones wishes, with 86% of respondents showing false memories.

Ditto suggests that these results indicate that living wills should have an "expiration date." But what should people do in order to ensure that their final wishes are followed? "On a more personal level," Ditto says, "our research stresses the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue among individuals, their families and their physicians about end-of-life treatment options.

False Memories Can Have Life-Altering and Even Fatal Consequences

In other instances, false memories have had a dramatic and disturbing impact on people's lives. For example, one Wisconsin woman sought help from a psychiatrist, who used a number of methods to help "uncover" repressed memories of traumatic events. Instead, these suggestive methods convinced the woman that she had been raped, in a cult, forced to eat babies, and that she had witnessed the murder of her best friend when she was a child. The woman later realized that the memories were false and had been implanted by her psychiatrist, resulting in a lawsuit and a $2.4 million dollar judgment in her favor.

False memories have also led to false accusations and false convictions for a variety of crimes, including sexual abuse. For example, in 1994 a 26-year-old preschool teacher served four years in prison after being convicted of 115 counts of sexually abusing 20 children in her care. Later review by a committee made up of nearly 50 scientists concluded that many of the implausible claims made against the defendant (which included forcing the children to eat her feces and raping them with knives and forks) were tainted by false memories. As a result, the defendant's conviction was overturned.

False memories can also have fatal consequences. In one terrible instance, a mother named Lyn Balfour accidentally forgot her nine-month-old son in the backseat of her car as she went to work one morning. By the time she discovered her mistake, it was too late. As temperatures reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit inside the car, her son died of hyperthermia.

What does this have to do with false memories? In many cases, these accidents happen when parents mistakenly believe that they dropped their children off at daycare or at the babysitter's. In Balfour's case, dropping her husband off at work that morning led her to think that she had, in fact, dropped her son off at the babysitter. Essentially, she formed a false memory of dropping her son off, leading her to forget that the child was actually still in the backseat.

"I remembered dropping Bryce off, talking to the babysitter. It's what they call false memories. When you do something every day as part of a routine, you can remember doing it, even if you didn't," Balfour explained to The Guardian.

It sounds like an incomprehensible mistake—or worse, an act of criminal child neglect. Yet every year in the United States, dozens of children die in hot cars, often after being forgotten by their caregivers. In many of these cases, the parents are not the neglectful, irresponsible people you might expect. Instead, they are often loving parents who get too busy or distracted and make a truly terrible mistake of memory.

"Memory is a machine, and it is not flawless," David Diamond, a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida, explained to writer Gene Weingarten in an article for The Washington Post Magazine. "Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you’re capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child."

While people often read such stories and immediately think, It could never happen to me. I have an excellent memory! the evidence suggests otherwise. Research has demonstrated that everyone is susceptible to false memories, even people with exceptionally good memory.

Final Thoughts

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

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12 Sources
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