Real Pictures Can Trigger False Memories

Most of us can be fooled into believing that we remember an event or an experience that never happened, and that false memory can be just as vivid as memories of real events. Now, new research suggests that an old photo of friends and associates can dramatically reinforce that false memory, even if the photo is not directly related to the phony event.

College students who participated in a study were asked if they remembered a prank they supposedly played on their first grade teacher. They recalled the event with surprising clarity, and they did so in "staggering" percentages, if they were shown a class photo depicting their fellow first grade students and their teacher.

But the event never occurred.

Far more of the students "remembered" the prank than students who were not shown a photo.

Giving Memory Something to Grip

Bolstered by the photo, two-thirds of the students recalled the prank, and talked in great detail about putting a gooey substance called "Slime" in their teacher's desk. Stephen Lindsay, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, leader of the project, says he was "flabbergasted" by the numbers.

The research is significant because many clinicians who are trying to help their patients deal with traumatic past events sometimes use old family photos to stimulate their memories. But now it turns out that old photos can also stimulate memories of things that never happened.

Lindsay speculates that the photos fire up the imagination by refreshing the memory of real people, like school teachers and classmates who may have been long forgotten, thus facilitating the formation of "fairly vivid fantasy images."

"Seeing the photo gives your imagination something to work with," he says.

Forty-five undergraduates participated in the research. Parents of the students furnished the researchers with two real events that they thought the students might recall, but fell short of family lore or often repeated stories. Both occurred during the 3rd through the 6th grades. The parents concurred that a third event, which was supposed to have happened during the first grade, never occurred.

Enter: Slime

That's the one involving the Slime, a popular gunk marketed by Mattel which feels like, well, slime. Twenty-three of the participants were shown class photos, which had been supplied to the researchers by the parents, for each of the three school years. The others had no photos.

The participants were interviewed in two sessions, one week apart, by researcher Lisa Hagen, co-author of a report in the March issue of Psychological Science. During the first session, Hagen quizzed the students about the real events, those that occurred during the third through the sixth grades. Students who were shown class photos were significantly better at recalling those events than were those who were not shown photos, but most of the students had no memory of either of the events.

A week later Hagen interviewed each student regarding the first grade prank that never occurred, and here the numbers are startling.

Only 27.3 percent of the students without photos "remembered" the Slime story. But a whopping 65.2 percent of those who were shown a class photo recalled even precise details about putting that awful stuff in the teacher's desk, and getting chewed out for it.

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