It has happened to all of us. We remember something out of our distant past so vividly that it seems like it happened yesterday. Then we learn that it never happened at all.
Our memories can be very selective, and it turns out, very creative.
"Memory is not like a tape recorder," says Jacquie Pickrell, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Washington, who has come up with evidence that it may be possible for outsiders to "implant" memories of phony events in our brains. Her research suggests it doesn't take much, maybe just the right advertisement.
Working with psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus, Pickrell came up with an experiment that would seem to prove her point. The researchers turned to the world of advertising for the project because it is so pervasive. It's something we all experience, over and over again, every day of our lives.
Bugs Bunny Invades Disneyland
Pickrell and Loftus lined up a group of 120 persons and told them they were going to participate in an advertising evaluation program, one of those group meetings where you're supposed to sit around and tell what works and why.
All of the participants had visited either Disneyland or Disney World. (The Walt Disney Co. is the parent company of ABCNEWS.)
"The subjects thought we were working for Disney," Pickrell says, but they weren't. They just wanted to find out if they could toy with someone else's memories.
The participants were divided into four groups, and asked to read a printed ad for Disneyland.
The first group read an ad about the theme park that made no mention of cartoon characters.
The second group read the same ad, but a 4-foot-tall cardboard cutout of Bugs Bunny was placed in the room.
The third group, which the researchers refer to as the "Bugs Group," read a fake Disneyland ad featuring Bugs Bunny.
The fourth group got a double whammy: both the Bugs ad and the cardboard cutout.
After reading through the ad, which featured a picture of Bugs just outside the Magic Kingdom, the participants were asked whether they had met Bugs while on a visit to the theme park, and whether they had shaken his hand.
About one-third of the participants who had read the phony ad featuring Bugs said they either remembered, or at least knew, they had indeed met Bugs at Disneyland and shaken his hand. Or foot, as the case may be.
But here's the rub. Bugs Bunny wouldn't be caught dead at Disneyland. He belongs to Warner Brothers.
Measuring Memory’s Vulnerability
By contrast, only eight percent of the first group, and four percent of the second, thought they had met the Wascally Wabbit at Disneyland. The difference, the researchers say, was in the ads. The mere suggestion of Bugs invading the land of Mickey was enough to convince a surprisingly high percentage of the participants that they had met him there.
The specific tally for those with memory implants was 30 percent for the third group and 40 percent for the fourth.
"Thirty or 40 percent is a very significant number," Pickrell says.
"The frightening thing about this study is that it suggests how easily a false memory can be created," she adds. "Memory is very vulnerable and malleable."
Loftus says advertising people have focused for years on something called autobiographical memory. If an ad brings something out of our memory that is pleasing to us, maybe we'll be more likely to take the bait.