Sydney study finds false memories are common

August 9, 2010, University of Sydney

Memories can't be trusted and become contaminated when people discuss their memories of an event with others, according to a University of Sydney study.

Lead researcher, Dr Helen Paterson from the School of Psychology said sharing memories can contaminate people's recollections and create false memories.

"A false is the recollection of an event, or details of an event, that did not actually occur," she said.

"My research focuses on how people can contaminate each other's memories for an event by discussing it with one another."

Dr Paterson said a key finding of the research was that misleading information presented through discussion with another person who observed the event can also lead to memory distortion.

"That is, witnesses who discuss an event with a co-witness are very likely to incorporate misinformation presented by the co-witness into their own memory for the event," she said.

"Once their memory has been contaminated in this way, the witness is often unable to distinguish between the accurate and inaccurate memories.

"Critically, our research has shown that co-witness discussion is an especially potent delivery mechanism for misinformation; information provided during discussions with a co-witness is more likely to be incorporated into the witness's memory than information encountered through leading questions, inaccurate media reports or other processes.

"Furthermore, our research has shown that memory contamination persists, even when people are warned that they have been exposed to misinformation by their co-witness.

"This suggests to us that people sometimes find it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between genuine memories and of an event."

Dr Paterson said the research had significant implications regarding the reliability of witness memory.

"Legal procedures are designed to counter dangers which arise when civilian witnesses discuss an event with one another.

"For example, our research has revealed that police officers in Australia often attempt to separate co-witnesses and discourage them from talking about the event with one another. Furthermore, witnesses are often prohibited from hearing each other's testimonies and lawyers may question witnesses regarding whether or not they have discussed the incident with others.

"Despite these attempts to keep witness testimony independent, it is clear that witnesses often do talk to each other about the event. Discussion among witnesses is difficult, if not impossible to prevent."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Young children use physics, not previous rewards, to learn about tools

February 23, 2018
Children as young as seven apply basic laws of physics to problem-solving, rather than learning from what has previously been rewarded, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge.

The 'loudness' of our thoughts affects how we judge external sounds

February 23, 2018
The "loudness" of our thoughts—or how we imagine saying something—influences how we judge the loudness of real, external sounds, a team of researchers from NYU Shanghai and NYU has found.

Study: Tinder loving cheaters—dating app facilitates infidelity

February 23, 2018
The popular dating app Tinder is all about helping people form new relationships. But for many college-aged people, it's also helping those in relationships cheat on their romantic partners.

Looking for the origins of schizophrenia

February 23, 2018
Schizophrenia may be related to neurodevelopmental changes, including brain's inability to generate an appropriate vascular system, according to new study resulted from a partnership between the D"Or Institute for Research ...

Color of judo uniform has no effect on winning

February 22, 2018
New research on competitive judo data finds a winning bias for the athlete who is first called, regardless of the colour of their uniform. This unique study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, puts to rest the debate on ...

Infants are able to learn abstract rules visually

February 22, 2018
Three-month-old babies cannot sit up or roll over, yet they are already capable of learning patterns from simply looking at the world around them, according to a recent Northwestern University study published in PLOS One.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 09, 2010
Since we let our memories change/adapt so easily.
Does this mean that we are always accepting anything as true.

Knowing that there is so much (small) lying (everyday) isn't it a bit weird that we are so bad in filtering that out.
not rated yet Aug 09, 2010
Must provide an evolutionary advantage else it would have been filtered out long ago. Probably to do with group leadership / politics.
not rated yet Aug 09, 2010
...and, yet, most Americans believe the indirect accounts of Jesus' apostles. :facepalm:

Sorry to bring in religion, but I can't think of a more significant witness testimony that has shaped the world.
5 / 5 (4) Aug 09, 2010
This helps partially explain why people who identify with any politucal ideology (all sides folks) or religion don't rely as much on objective facts as they think they do, but rather "facts" that support the ideology they're already enslaved to. They talk amoungst themselves about how "right" their side is and how "wrong" the other side is. And by shielding themselves from discussion of the other side, their false memories tend to favor only their ideology. They then extrapolate more "facts" using their false memories as the foundation of their new "insights", then use those false conclusions for even more bizzare conclusions. The more isolated they become from the other side, the more unhinged they become from reality. Of course, it's always "someone else" that does that and usually people from "the other side of the aisle"... regardless of which side of the aisle that individual is from. This seems to be a pervasive problem in people in general, not in any particular ideology.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 09, 2010
^ IOW, people believe what they want to believe. People want to believe what is comfortable for them to believe. People are comfortable believing what their friends and family believe. Those people do the same. We all do that because group cohesion brings an evolutionary advantage. A feedback loop ensues. You cannot escape the bonds of our animal evolution unless you challenge the worldview in which you were raised.

Take a year off after high school and travel the world. ;)
not rated yet Aug 10, 2010
@lengould100 - why would it have been filtered out long ago? Evolution is not an upward spiral towards "perfection", and many "faults" will persist if strengths lead to survival.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2010

The same can be said for any ideology. Capitalism, communism, socialism, democracy, scepticism, atheism, etc etc.

Perhaps nationalism is a more significant witness testimony in how it has shaped the world.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.