Science Behind False Memories

Author: Winni Ye

Editors: Yanxi Chen and Peggy Yang

Artists: Cici Zhang

If you've ever watched any true crime podcast, you're sure to have heard of false confessions or the unreliability of eyewitness testimonies. If not, think back to any time you recalled an event incorrectly. Maybe it was thinking your keys were in your bag when they were in fact on the coffee table or remembering you had eggs for breakfast when it was really a croissant. All of these can be instances of false memories, a phenomenon in which a person recalls a past event differently than how it occurred.

It turns out that false memories are a very common part of our lives due to how memories are formed. From a psychological standpoint, memories are made up of three processes: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Numerous psychologists have confirmed that false memories can form due to errors in any of these three processes.

For example, Encoding refers to how memory is stored–visually, acoustically, and semantically. Acoustic and visual encoding is most closely associated with short-term memory as it utilizes sight and hearing, while semantic coding is associated with long-term memory as it is often a result of a deeper understanding of a moment or situation. The Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) false memory paradigm reveals the imperfection of memory through semantic encoding by leading participants to falsely recall words that were not on a list that was earlier presented to them. This paradigm presents a list of words crafted around an associated but excluded word, known as the critical lure. However, because of semantic coding, our mind incorrectly assumes that the critical lure was on the list because of our tendency to remember based on meaning and association.

A study by American psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and John C. Palmer in 1974 demonstrated how memory could be altered at storage; it concerns what and how information is stored so that it can later be retrieved. Loftus and Palmer showed participants videos of an automobile accident and asked them follow-up questions. To one group of people, they were asked, "How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" and to the other, "How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?" A week later, the participants were questioned about the film, and those in the first group were more likely to mistakenly remember broken glass in the film than those in the latter group. In a similar experiment, participants were shown a film and were either asked: "How fast was the white sports car going when it passed the barn while traveling along the country road?" or the same question but excluding the barn. Those asked about the barn after the film were later more likely to 'recall' seeing a barn, even though there was no barn in the film.

Psychologists have noted that what differentiates a false memory from a real one lies in the vividness of the memory. When asked to make quantitative ratings for characteristics of certain memories, such as details on the five senses or emotions, participants show that real memories tend to be more detailed than false memories. This, however, does present a contradiction in itself because the more an individual thinks about a false memory, the more vivid it becomes as the brain supplies the individual with more details about an event that never transpired.

Nevertheless, false memories do not always spell trouble. Thanks to this imperfect system, it allows us to remember the past as better than it truly was and helps us avoid disagreements over differing accounts of the truth.



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Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, Elsevier, 2001, pp. 5254


McLeod, Saul. "Stages of memory - encoding storage and retrieval." SimplyPsychology, 5 Aug.


Perera, Ayesh. "False Memory." SimplyPsychology, 7 Apr. 2021,

Storbeck, Justin, and Gerald L. Clore. "Affect Influences False Memories at Encoding:

Evidence from Recognition Data." Emotion, vol. 11, no. 4, 2011, pp. 981-89,


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