Implanting False Memories

ttending a conference of the Committee of Scientific Inquiry recently held in Nashville, TN, one of the high points was a symposium on belief and memory.   Moderated by Dr. Ray Hyman, a pioneer of the modern skeptical movement, the symposium featured presentations by James Alcock of York University (one of my professors from graduate school, by the way),   Miracle Detective Indre Viskontas, and Elizabeth Loftus from the University of California, Irvine.   While each of the speakers gave compelling talks, I decided to focus on what Dr. Loftus had to say, both because of her reputation as a forensic psychologist and the controversy surrounding false and repressed memories.

“I’m interested in the beliefs that we have about ourselves which can be true or false beliefs but at some point, these beliefs begin to feel like recollections, to feel like memories.  If the beliefs are  false then the memories are false.”   Beginning her talk on how false memories can be implanted, Dr. Loftus admitted that she enjoyed collecting false memory  stories  “as they are occurring in the wild” and proceeded with three recent examples featuring Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton.

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In the Paul Ryan example, he did a recent radio interview in which he reported having done exceptionally well in a marathon which he claimed to have completed in just under three hours.   A follow-investigation by Runner’s World showed that his actual performance was considerably longer.   In a more significant memory lapse,  Mitt Romney described his strong childhood memory of the Golden Jubilee marking the 50th anniversary of the automobile industry despite the fact that it actually took place nine months before he was born!

To be fair, Dr. Loftus also pointed out that Hillary Clinton was guilty of a similar memory malfunction when, during the 2008 presidential campaign, she described a visit to Bosnia during the civil war when she faced enemy snipers.  Based on the recollections of the others who went with her to Bosnia (including her daughter, Chelsea), none of her vivid recollections of ducking gunfire actually happened.   Confronted with this evidence, Senator Clinton denied lying about the incident.  “I made a mistake.  I had a different memory.   That proves I’m human which  for some people is a revelation.”   

In providing these examples, Dr. Loftus pointed out that the intelligence, education and experience of all three politicians failed to protect them from having false memories of significant events in their lives.  Despite the humourous examples of how memory can play tricks, not every example of false memory is so entertaining.

To read more, check out my latest Psychology Today blog post.

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