News and Commentary

Here’s How Easy It Is To Convince Someone They Experienced A Traumatic Event That Never Happened

Our memories are not computers capable of storing accurate data — especially during traumatic events — despite what many “experts” would have you believe.

It is actually really easy to corrupt our memories, whether through hypnosis or not. In 1995, professor Elizabeth Loftus — a distinguished professor at the University of California-Irvine and expert on human memory —​ conducted a study with Jacqueline Pickrell — a research scientist at the University of Washington-Seattle — that found people could easily “recall” a traumatic memory that didn’t actually happen with just a little help.

The researchers recruited 24 participants who heard four stories from a family member about their past – three true and one false. The stories were provided by a family member of each participant. The false story was to involve the participant being lost in a shopping mall as a young child, with each relative providing plausible details such as a specific mall.

Participants were shown each of the relatives’ stories in written form, and asked which ones they remembered. Shortly thereafter, the participants were interviewed about the four memories and asked to recall as much information as they could about each. They were interviewed again a week later, and asked to rate how clearly they remembered each story.

The participants were then told that one story was false and asked them to guess which one. Loftus and Pickrell found that five of the 24 participants thought the false story was real.

This experiment followed a previous one conducted by Loftus, who used the same technique. A 14-year-old named “Chris” listened to his older brother recount a story about Chris being lost in a mall when he was 5. The older brother said they found Chris being led away by a tall, older man, possibly in a flannel shirt. At first, Chris didn’t remember such an event, but two days later, he began “remembering” feelings related to being lost: “That day, I was so scared that I would never see my family again. I knew that I was in trouble.” A day after that, he “remembered” his mother telling him never to get lost again. Five days after hearing his older brother’s story, Chris now “remembers” some of the conversation he had with the older man in the flannel shirt. Remember, this event never happened.

Studies like the ones Loftus has been conducting have been replicated over and over again. A 1996 study, which had more participants than Loftus and Pickrell’s and considered more memories, found 20% to 40% of participants easily accepted a false memory. A 2002 study, which doctored a photograph to implant false memories, found 50% of participants could accept a false memory.