Researchers: Half of People Believe Fake Facts
Around 50% of us are susceptible to believing we’ve experienced fictitious events, according to an international team of researchers led by Dr. Alan Scoboria, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Windsor, Canada.
In a study on false memories, Dr. Scoboria and co-authors demonstrate that if we are told about a completely fictitious event from our lives, and repeatedly imagine that event occurring, almost half of us would accept that it did.
“Memories are precious. They bond relationships, contribute to a sense of identity, and shape current decisions and future planning,” the authors said.
“Memories may also seem eternal, like cherished photographs in an album we peruse from time to time. Our memories play major roles in making us who we are. Our beliefs about our personal histories both reflect and constitute central aspects of ourselves.”
“Yet remembering the past is a complex phenomenon that is subject to error,” they noted.
“The malleable nature of human memory has led some researchers to argue that our memory systems are not oriented towards flawlessly preserving our past experiences. Indeed, many researchers now agree that remembering is, to some degree, reconstructive.”
“Current theories propose that our capacity to flexibly recombine remembered information from multiple sources helps us to solve current problems and anticipate future events.”
“One implication of having a reconstructive and flexible memory system is that people can develop rich and coherent autobiographical memories of entire events that never happened.”
“The existence of illusory autobiographical memories and false beliefs about the personal past has profound implications for psychology and for other disciplines. Thus it is crucial for psychological scientists to understand the mechanisms that underlie the development of mistaken beliefs and illusory recollections and to address critical questions.”
“We revisit questions about the conditions under which participants in studies of false autobiographical memory come to believe in and remember fictitious childhood experiences.”
Over 400 participants in ‘memory implantation’ studies had fictitious autobiographical events suggested to them – and it was found that around 50% of the participants believed, to some degree, that they had experienced those events.
The participants came to remember a range of false events, such as taking a childhood hot air balloon ride, playing a prank on a teacher, or creating havoc at a family wedding.
30% of participants appeared to ‘remember’ the event — they accepted the suggested event, elaborated on how the event occurred, and even described images of what the event was like.
Another 23% showed signs that they accepted the suggested event to some degree and believed it really happened.
“It can be very difficult to determine when a person is recollecting actual past events, as opposed to false memories — even in a controlled research environment; and more so in real life situations,” Dr. Scoboria and co-authors said.
The findings, published in the journal Memory, have significance in many areas — raising questions around the authenticity of memories used in forensic investigations, court rooms, and therapy treatments.
Moreover, the collective memories of a large group of people or society could be incorrect — due to misinformation in the news, for example — having a striking effect on people’s perceptions and behavior.
“The finding that a large portion of people are prone to developing false beliefs is important. We know from other research that distorted beliefs can influence people’s behaviors, intentions and attitudes,” said co-author Dr. Kimberley Wade, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick, UK.
“Our research demonstrates a useful procedure for systematically combining data that are not amenable to meta-analysis, and provides the most valid estimate of false memory formation and associated moderating factors within the implantation literature to date,” the researchers said.
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