We often like to think of our memories as being infallible mental vaults that contain accurate representations of reality. We check our memory in order to learn what actually happened in any given scenario and to try and ascertain the circumstances leading up to particular events. These memories inform not only our understanding of the world around us but also our decisions and even our personalities.
But the frightening reality is that our memories are anything but iron clad. Rather, our memories are subject to change and are very easily influenced by a myriad of outside factors. The misinformation effect is a prime example of this and an example of a ‘Inception’ like phenomenon that can occur in real life.
Understanding the Misinformation Effect
The misinformation effect occurs when an individual’s recall of episodic memories is altered due to post-event information. In other words, you change your memories unconsciously in light of new data.
One study that demonstrates this effectively was carried out in 1994 (1). Here, subjects were shown one of two slides showing a college student at the campus bookstore. The slides were followed by a narrative explaining what was happening in the images.
In one group, the students were shown with particular objects but these objects would change across slides. In some slides, the student was shown with a screwdriver for instance, while they would be shown with a wrench in others. The narrative simply described what they were holding as a ‘tool’.
In a second group, the participants would be shown the same slides but the audio narrative would explicitly name the tool as a ‘screwdriver’ or ‘wrench’. This would be the same every time, while the slides would change – meaning that the narration would be wrong half the time.
Finally, the next phase required all the participants to list five examples of types of tools that were not seen in any of the slides. The students who had been given the incorrect narrative were less likely to list the objects mentioned in the narrative, even though they had not actually seen it. More interestingly, they were also more likely to incorrectly name the objects that they had seen.
Here, the narrative provided misinformation which ended up interfering with that initial memory. Of course there are methodological problems with this study. For one, it is very possible that participants were simply confused by the task or possibly even thought that it was a mistake on the part of the examiners. It’s also possible that the participants may have believed that what they were looking at was a strange hammer, seeing as the narrator told them so.
But nevertheless, countless subsequent examples have demonstrated that memories can be altered in other ways. Sometimes, we will fill in the ‘blanks’ in a memory by using ‘schemas’. These are a little like ‘default’ memories of things like decors or strangers’ faces. If you recall sitting in a restaurant in your childhood, chances are that the décor you remember is a generic one and not actually the décor that was really there.
More famously, the work of Loftus et al., demonstrates how language can color our memories of particular events. If you ask someone how fast the car was going when they say it ‘bump’ into the car in front, they will estimate the speed as being lower than if you ask them how fast it was going when it ‘smashed’ into the car in front.
Where Does the Misinformation Effect Come From?
It would appear that we will sometimes revisit our memories, beliefs and ideas based on new information that comes to light and that this can be a conscious decision. However, it would also seem that this same thing can occur unconsciously: that we can change our beliefs about an event in light of new information without realizing that our memories have altered at all.
This is likely due to the brain’s desire for congruence. We are designed to seek out patterns and connections and to understand that all actions have an equal and opposite reaction. This allows us to create mental models of what we think happened and to then use those models to predict future occurrences and therefore decide how best to behave going forward. Simply encompassing new information is the best way for us to create a congruent model – we are constantly updating it to provide more information.
Another theory is based simply on the way we store memories and is explained as a ‘recency effect’. That is to say, that we find it easier to retrieve information that we have only recently committed to memory. Therefore, when trying to remember what happened in a video, you might find that the more recent information overrides what you originally knew to be true.
Using the Misinformation Effect
In our day-to-day lives, it’s important to recognize the fallibility of human memory and to take this into account when making decisions. If you are making a decision or choosing a course of action based on a memory, then it is highly important that you be sure your memory is accurate. This might mean conferring with other people, or it might mean checking against photos and videos.
One of the most common scenarios where the misinformation effect comes into play in our day to day lives, is when we are remembering things from our past. Often, when we have heard a lot of stories about an event, we will have visualized the things happening as we heard or told them. Eventually, you can end up confusing your visualization of that event with the actual memory!
If you want to be meticulous in keeping accurate memories, it can be useful to make a record of events at the time that they happen. This is one very good reason to write a journal – so that you can actually check your memories against what you wrote at the time. It might just surprise you when you look back!
Finally, keep in mind that you can also use this knowledge when trying to persuade others. Knowing that a subtle change in your language, or a slight change in the way you report something happening can allow you to color someone’s memory of an event and this has a ton of potential benefits – whether you’re trying to get out of trouble when something goes wrong at work or you’re trying to sell a product. This works best when you make small, almost imperceptible changes to the story and speak as though that was always the case. Don’t try and change large details, as this will be jarring for the person you’re talking to and that will draw too much attention to the lie.
Now you can begin to rewrite history for your own ends. Just make sure that you use this powerful information responsibly! With great power and all that!