How People Remember

October 2, 2013 Katharina Lochner

Elizabeth Loftus on How People Remember

In the film “Inception”, the main character tries to implant a thought into another person’s subconscious so that the other person will think it was his own idea. Science fiction? Maybe not. Recent research suggests that it is possible to plant false memories into people – without any advanced technology, even without drugs.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus from the University of California says that for her studying memory does not mean finding out when people forget, but rather how people remember things that did not happen or were different from the way they remember – false memories. We already reported on the finding that memory does not work like a recorder, but that it is constructive. The research by Elizabeth Loftus suggests that, as she puts it, “memory works like a Wikipedia page: you can go in there and change it, but so can other people”. In a TED Talk, she explains how she and other researchers succeeded in planting false memories into their study participants by simply asking questions in a certain way or by using an imagination exercise.

Thus, implanting a false memory does not seem to be that difficult. For example, after showing people videos of car crashes, their memories could be manipulated by the words the researchers used in the recall question. Furthermore, after a simple imagination exercise, people believed such things as having been lost in a shopping mall, nearly having drowned, being attacked by an animal, or witnessing demonic possession as children.

The experiments show that the idea the film “Inception” is based on is closer to reality than most of us might think. It is possible to implant false memories, good ones just as much as bad ones, and this might happen voluntarily or accidentally. Elizabeth Loftus concludes with the words: Just because someone expresses something with confidence, in detail and with emotion it does not mean that it really happened.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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