Investigating Make Believe Memories

In fraud investigations, investigators gain valuable insight by conducting interrogations of suspects and eye-witnesses. Legally an eyewitness account is considered critical evidence. The question is how reliable is the information gathered from the interrogations? Is the eyewitness account fool proof and can it be completely relied on by the decision makers?

While studying the cognitive psychology paper “Make-Believe Memories” authored by Elizabeth F. Loftus, I realized that false memories can be created by subtle suggestions. Elizabeth F. Loftus has conducted a number of studies on creating false memories   and I am presenting here some of the aspects which are relevant for white collar crime investigations.  Below are some of the experiments she conducted. I have incorporated my recommendations for interrogators to take into account while conducting an interrogation.

1.       Eyewitness Memory

 Elizabeth Loftus began conducting experiments to determine whether leading questions could impact the memory of the eyewitness and would the eyewitness provide different responses on witnessing the same scene if questioned in a different manner.

Experiment: Participants were shown films of traffic accidents and questioned in different ways. The first question “Did you see the broken headlight?” led to more false answers than when the question was replaced with the verb hit. The second question “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” led to higher estimates of speed than a more neutral question that used the verb hit. The results indicated that leading questions could contaminate or distort a witness’s memory.

Recommendation: An interrogator should use neutral words to question the eyewitness. When in doubt regarding the validity of the answer, pose the question using different words regarding the same event after a time gap from the first question and determine whether the response is different. If response is varying, collaborate the information from another witness or physical evidence.

2.       Misinformation Effect

 Have you ever wondered why rumors, gossip, advertisements and media have such a strong impact on human beings that they are willing to swear on the authenticity of the information? This is because misinformation substantially influences human memory. Experiments were conducted on participants to determine the influence on their memories when they were misinformed regarding an event.

Experiment: A Norwegian research group (Ihlebaek, Love, Eilertsen, & Magnussen, 2003) conducted an experiment where one set of participants witnessed a live crime scene and another set of comparable participants watched the video of the same crime. Results indicated that participants who watched the video remembered the details of the crime much better than those who saw the staged crime.

A different research group (Scoboria, Mazzoni, Kirsch, & Milling, 2002) experimented with impact of hypnosis and misleading questions. Participants were first told a story and then later tested for recall of the story by being asked misleading questions and/or questioned under hypnosis. Results indicated that use of hypnosis increased errors, but misleading questions produced even more errors. The combination of the hypnosis and misleading questions produced more errors than when one either one of them was tried.

Recommendation: An interrogator should carefully determine whether the witness is misinformed regarding any aspect of the event. The witness may be under the influence of media stories, rumors, gossips or friendly advice. This would make the witness account false. The second aspect is that interrogator should be careful about using words and ensure that none of the words suggest a situation which will make the witness think in a specific direction.

3.       Planting False Memories

 The next question is that, is it possible to create an entire memory for an event which never occurred? Could a human being actually believe that he/she experienced an event when in reality they never had to face that particular situation? Experiments were conducted to plant false memories in the participants mind and to check whether their behavior changed, and did they believe the specific memory to be true.

 Experiment: In this experiment participants were given a narrative description of their childhood events and encouraged to remember them. The narrative was created with the help of the family. However, one of the descriptions was incorrect and mixed with the other authentic information. The participant were led to believe that at the age of 5-6 years they were lost in a shopping mall and eventually re-united with their family with the help of an elderly person. Approximately 25% of the participants believed it to be true. In of other similar experiments the experimenters were able to plant false memories in up to 50% of the participants.

Recommendation: Interrogators need to be careful in assessing whether the witness is narrating true facts or doctored information. In false memory events, if the witness believes them to be true, the same level of emotion would be displayed as in a true event. Hence, in this case detecting a lie would be difficult, as it would be an honest lie. However, the difference is that a person narrates a true event with much more confidence than a false memory event. So assess the confidence level of the person while he/she is narrating the event.

4.       Rich False Memories

The last aspect in these series of experiments is whether an existing memory can be manipulated in a manner to make a person accept a false memory of a recent event. If it is possible, then can we rely that truth is being told. An experiment was conducted to determine how memory of recent events can be altered to create a false memory.

Experiment: A study was conducted were the participants were asked to sit around a table loaded with numerous objects. The participants were asked to do various things like flipping a coin or imagining that they are flipping a coin. A few days later they were called to the same place but there were no objects in front of them. They were required to do the same actions with imaginary objects. In the final session, the participants were questioned to check their memory on the activities done in the first session. They falsely claimed to have done many things which never occurred. Some of the activities they narrated were quite bizarre.

Recommendation: During interrogation the interviewer needs to be clear that the witness actually saw the sequence of events and has not been mislead into it. Also, this cause’s major impact on the validity of the witness account when one sees the time gap in the crime and the event. The memory to recall the correct sequence of events would be quite rare. Hence, this aspect should be considered while evaluating evidence.

The abovementioned experiments show the power of suggestion and how it can influence the memory of a person. Stories can make people believe that an event occurred instead of the other way round, where a person believes a story because an event occurred. This clearly indicates that suggestions can cause major damage in conducting an investigation. Human beings have selective memory and may be speaking an honest lie. It is best to corroborate the account with physical evidence wherever possible.

 On the lighter side, the above mentioned experiments provide profound insight for understanding the fallacies of mankind. These experiments indicate that most of the information which a person thinks, analyzes or speaks is unreliable and incorrect. And then we wonder why so many of our decisions are going wrong. Also, it is kind of heartening to know how effortlessly an intelligent person can be taken for a ride. 🙂


2 comments on “Investigating Make Believe Memories

  1. I appreciate your analysis. People ARE suggestible, a trait we use in hypnosis. Most people underestimate their susceptibility to suggestion, and overestimate their ability to resist influence. And I certainly have observed your conclusions concerning human behavior to be on the mark.

    • Pam,

      Thanks for the compliment. I think in most cases people get influenced and form judgments without even realising it. For example, a friend A says something negative about C to her firend B. Now B has never met C before, but when she meets C she is looking for the characteristics described by A and is more than half way ready to form a negative opinion about B. So we need to be really careful on understanding what kind of influences are impacting our life.


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