51 10.6 When Memory Is Wrong

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the factors that can influence the accuracy of our memory for events.

In the previous section, we looked at some of the reasons why we forget. In this section, we will review memories that are not forgotten but are faulty. This will help you to understand why family memories of the same event may differ; some family members’ memories may be inaccurate, for a variety of reasons.

Source monitoring: Did it really happen?

One potential error in memory involves mistakes in differentiating the sources of information. Source monitoring refers to the ability to accurately identify the source of a memory. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of wondering whether you really experienced an event or only dreamed or imagined it. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. Eric Rassin, Harald Merkelbach, and Victor Spaan (2001) reported that up to 25% of undergraduate students reported being confused about real versus dreamed events. Studies suggest that people who are fantasy-prone are more likely to experience source monitoring errors (Winograd, Peluso, & Glover, 1998), and such errors also occur more often for both children and the elderly than for adolescents and younger adults (Jacoby & Rhodes, 2006).

Think of your earliest childhood memories. Likely, these contain stories relayed to you from parents and siblings. It might surprise you to know that even though these feel like your memories — things that you experienced personally — it is very likely that some of these are not memories of personally experienced events at all, but they are instead constructed by your brain out of the stories you have been told. Unfortunately, there is no way to really know which of these memories are really yours and which are reconstructions that feel like memories. In fact, you may remember something as “yours” when in actuality it was experienced by a family member like your brother or sister and not by you at all. Source misattribution is the phenomenon of misidentifying the source of a memory.

Famous musician George Harrison of The Beatles claimed that he was unaware that the melody of his song “My Sweet Lord” was almost identical to a song called “He’s so Fine” published seven years earlier by Ronnie Mack and popularized by The Chiffons. You can easily find versions of both tunes online and compare them for yourself. The judge in the copyright suit against Harrison ruled that Harrison did not intentionally commit the plagiarism. Harrison’s source misattribution is clearly expressed in his memoir:

“I wasn’t consciously aware of the similarity between ‘He’s So Fine’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’ when I wrote the song, as it was more improvised and not so fixed,” Harrison wrote in I Me Mine. “Although when my version of the song came out and started to get a lot of airplay, people started talking about it, and it was then I thought, ‘Why didn’t I realize?’ It would have been very easy to change a note here or there and not affect the feeling of the record.” (Mastropolo, 2016, para. 6)

Misinformation effects: How information that comes later can distort memory

A particular problem for eyewitnesses is that our memories are often influenced by the things that occur to us after we have learned the information (Erdmann, Volbert, & Böhm, 2004; Loftus, 1979; Zaragoza, Belli, & Payment, 2007). This new information can distort our original memories such that we are no longer sure what is the real information and what was provided later. The misinformation effect refers to errors in memory that occur when new information influences existing memories.

In an experiment by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer (1974), participants viewed a film of a traffic accident and then, according to random assignment to experimental conditions, answered one of three questions:

  • “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”
  • “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?”
  • “About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?”

Although all the participants saw the same accident, their estimates of the cars’ speed varied by condition (see Figure 10.15). Participants who had been asked about the cars “smashing” each other estimated the highest average speed, and those who had been asked the “contacted” question estimated the lowest average speed.



This chart identifies how the random assignment of a verb in a question about a car accident influenced the speed estimation in miles per hour (mph) for the participants, ranging from 30.8 mph when "contacted" was the verb, 34.0 mph when "hit" was the verb, and 40.8 mph when "smashed" was the verb.
Figure 10.15. Participants viewed a film of a traffic accident and then answered a question about the accident. According to random assignment, the verb in the question was filled by either “hit,” “smashed,” or “contacted” each other. The wording of the question influenced the participants’ memory of the accident (Loftus & Palmer, 1974).

In addition to distorting our memories for events that have actually occurred, misinformation may lead us to falsely remember information that never occurred. Researchers asked parents to provide them with descriptions of events that did happen to their children (e.g., moving to a new house) and that did not happen (e.g., being lost in a shopping mall). Then, without telling the children which events were real or made up, the researchers asked the children to imagine both types of events. The children were instructed to “think real hard” about whether the events had occurred (Ceci, Huffman, Smith, & Loftus, 1994). More than half of the children generated stories regarding at least one of the made-up events, and they remained insistent that the events did, in fact, occur even when told by the researcher that they could not possibly have occurred (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Even college or university students are susceptible to manipulations that make events that did not actually occur seem as if they did (Mazzoni, Loftus, & Kirsch, 2001).

Misinformation effects can have serious consequences in the criminal justice system if incorrect information is provided to witnesses, who may subsequently alter their memory, or jurors, who may misremember evidence given in court. William Crozier, Timothy Luke, and Deryn Strange (2017) found that mock jurors misremembered evidence provided by a police report that contained misleading information. Warnings about the existence of misinformation failed to mitigate the effect on juror memories, suggesting that the weighing of evidence that jurors must do in deciding the fate of a defendant may be affected by misinformation that subsequently becomes incorporated into memory.

The ease with which memories can be created or implanted is particularly problematic when the events to be recalled have important consequences. Therapists often argue that patients may repress memories of traumatic events they experienced as children, such as childhood sexual abuse, and then recover the events years later as the therapist leads them to recall the information — for instance, by using dream interpretation and hypnosis (Brown, Scheflin, & Hammond, 1998).

Other researchers argue that painful memories such as sexual abuse are usually very well remembered, that few memories are actually repressed, and that even if they are it is virtually impossible for patients to accurately retrieve them years later (McNally, Bryant, & Ehlers, 2003; Pope, Poliakoff, Parker, Boynes, & Hudson, 2007). These researchers have argued that the procedures used by the therapists to “retrieve” the memories are more likely to actually implant false memories, leading the patients to erroneously recall events that did not actually occur. Because hundreds of people have been accused, and even imprisoned, on the basis of claims about “recovered memory” of child sexual abuse, the accuracy of these memories has important societal implications. Many psychologists now believe that most of these claims of recovered memories are due to implanted, rather than real, memories (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994).


One of the most remarkable aspects of the Winnipeg waitress’s mistaken identification of James Sophonow, described at the beginning of this chapter, was her certainty. Yet, research reveals a pervasive cognitive bias toward overconfidence, which is the tendency for people to be too certain about their ability to accurately remember events and to make judgments.

Eyewitnesses to crimes are frequently overconfident in their memories, and there is only a small correlation between how accurate and how confident an eyewitness is. The witness who claims to be absolutely certain about the identification of the perpetrator is not much more likely to be accurate than one who appears much less sure, making it almost impossible to determine whether a particular witness is accurate or not (Wells & Olson, 2003).

Depending on your age, you may have a clear memory of when you first heard about the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001, when you heard that Princess Diana was killed in 1997, or when the Canadian men’s and women’s hockey teams scored the winning goals in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics. This type of memory, which we experience along with a great deal of emotion, is known as a flashbulb memory — a vivid and emotional memory of an unusual event that people believe they remember very well (Brown & Kulik, 1977).

People are very certain of their memories of these important events, and they are frequently overconfident. Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin (2003) tested the accuracy of flashbulb memories by asking students to write down their memory of how they had heard the news about either the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks or about an everyday event that had occurred to them during the same time frame. These recordings were made on September 12, 2001. Then, the participants were asked again, either one, six, or 32 weeks later, to recall their memories. The participants became less accurate in their recollections of both the emotional event and the everyday events over time, but the participants’ confidence in the accuracy of their memory of learning about the attacks did not decline over time. After 32 weeks, the participants were overconfident; they were much more certain about the accuracy of their flashbulb memories than they should have been. Thus, overconfidence can lead us to falsely believe that what we remember is correct.

Memory is reconstructive

Despite a widespread belief that memory is like the replaying of a videotape, the evidence suggests that our memories are active reconstructions. Confabulation is the term that describes a memory that you have of something that is faulty because it actually happened to someone else or because it never actually happened at all. For example, you might think you remember something from childhood, but it might actually have been an event that was experienced by a sibling. The family stories have been re-imagined and have created a confabulation. People are not aware that they have confabulated because their memory is very real. The likelihood of confabulation increases when a story is told and retold many times — perhaps over several years. The more colourful the story, the easier it is to imagine. Childhood memories are particularly prone to confabulation.



Key Takeaways

  • Misremember something as happening to us that actually never happened, or happened to someone else, is source misattribution, which is a failure of source monitoring.
  • Memories are subject to misinformation.
  • People are more confident in the accuracy of their memories than they should be.
  • Memory is reconstructive.



Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Consider a time when you were uncertain if you really experienced an event or only imagined it. What impact did this have on you, and how did you resolve it?
  2. Compare your memory of an event with someone else who participated. What differences exist between your memories, and how do you explain them?
  3. Imagine that you were involved in a legal case in which an eyewitness claimed that they had seen a person commit a crime. How might you reduce the possibility that the eyewitness was making a mistaken identification based on faulty memory?
  4. If you grew up with siblings, compare memories of early life events to see if there is any evidence of confabulation.


Congratulations on completing Chapter 10! Remember to go back to the section on Approach and Pedagogy near the beginning of the book to learn more about how to get the most out of reading and learning the material in this textbook.

Image Attributions

Figure 10.15. Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.


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