How Easily False Memories are Created

An important issue for theories of cognition is how well we remember things. It is important because nearly every aspect of cognition depends on memory to some degree. To understand problem solving, decision making, attention, and perception, one needs to know the abilities and limits of memory. The quality of memory is important for practical reasons as well. Many significant events depend on reports from human observers. From eyewitness testimony in murder trials to personal arguments, memory accuracy is critical.


A few years ago, the actor Alan Alda visited a group of memory researchers at the University of California, Irvine, for a TV show he was making. During a picnic lunch, one of the scientists offered Alda a hard-boiled egg. He turned it down, explaining that as a child he had made himself sick eating too many eggs.

In fact, this had never happened, yet Alda believed it was real. How so? The egg incident was a false memory planted by one of UC Irvine’s researchers, Elizabeth Loftus. Before the visit, Loftus had sent Alda a questionnaire about his food preferences and personality. She later told him that a computer analysis of his answers had revealed some facts about his childhood, including that he once made himself sick eating too many eggs. There was no such analysis but it was enough to convince Alda.

Your memory may feel like a reliable record of the past, but it is not. Loftus has spent the past 30 years studying the ease with which we can form “memories” of nonexistent events. She has convinced countless people that they have seen or done things when they haven’t – even quite extreme events such as being attacked by animals or almost drowning. Her work has revealed much about how our brains form and retain memories.

While I wouldn’t want to plant a memory of a nonexistent childhood trauma in your own brain, there is a less dramatic demonstration of how easy it is to form a false memory called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm. Try the following thought experiment:


First, read List #1 of words. Read the first two lists of words and pause for a few minutes. Then read List #2 and again pause for a few minutes. Read List #3 and put a tick against the words that were in the first two. Now go back and check your answers…

List #1

apple, vegetable, orange, kiwi,         

citrus, ripe, pear, banana, berry,

cherry, basket, juice, salad, bowl,


 List 2

web, insect, bug, fright, fly,

arachnid, crawl, tarantula, poison,

bite, creepy, animal, ugly, feelers, small

 NOW WAIT A FEW MINUTES. Then forward to List #3 at the end of the article.



Corroboration of an event by another person is a powerful technique for instilling a false memory. Jean Piaget, the great child psychologist, claimed that his earliest memory was of nearly being kidnapped at the age of 2. He remembered details such as sitting in his baby carriage, watching the nurse defend herself against the kidnapper, scratches on the nurse’s face, and a police officer with a short cloak and a white baton chasing the kidnapper away. The story was reinforced by the nurse and the family and others who had heard the story. Piaget was convinced that he remembered the event. However, it never happened. Thirteen years after the alleged kidnapping attempt, Piaget’s former nurse wrote to his parents to confess that she had made up the entire story. Piaget later wrote: “I therefore must have heard, as a child, the account of this story…and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory, which was a memory of a memory, but false” (Tavris, Carol. “Hysteria and the incest-survivor machine,” Sacramento Bee, Forum section, January 17, 1993.)

Alan Alda was informed of his “supposed”  physical reaction about eating eggs as a young boy by a fictitious computer analysis. The analysis was corroborated by researcher Loftus. It was the corroboration of the computer analysis that instilled Alda’s false memory about getting sick from eggs.

Merely claiming to have seen a person do something can lead that person to make a false confession of wrongdoing. This effect was demonstrated in a study by Saul M. Kassin and his colleagues at Williams College, who investigated the reactions of individuals falsely accused of damaging a computer by pressing the wrong key. The innocent participants initially denied the charge, but when a confederate said that she had seen them perform the action, many participants signed a confession, internalized guilt for the act and went on to confabulate details that were consistent with that belief. These findings show that false incriminating evidence can induce people to accept guilt for a crime they did not commit and even to develop memories to support their guilty feelings.

In a famous criminal case, renowned memory researcher, Dr Richard Ofshe, was asked to interview Paul Ingram, a police officer who had confessed to sexually abusing his own daughters. Originally, Ingram had strongly denied the charges but after months of intense pressure from police officers, psychologists and therapists he eventually confessed.  He confessed to all manner of rapes, child sexual abuses and even to participation in a Satan-worshipping cult which had allegedly murdered 25 babies.

After listening to the tape recorded confessions, Ofshe became suspicious of Ingram’s credibility. In order to test Ingram, he made up a story that his son and daughter claimed he had forced them to have sex with each other while he watched. This was something Ofshe confirmed both the son and daughter that had not actually happened. Over a period of hours, and despite initially denying the memory, Ingram slowly began to generate false memories. Ultimately Ingram wrote a three-page detailed confession to a crime that was completely fabricated by the memory researcher with the corroboration of Ingram’s son and daughter.

Unfortunately for Paul Ingram, Ofshe’s report wasn’t approved or entered into the trial record until after he was convicted. He was unable to get a new trial and spent years in jail. He is now on parole and is still a registered sex offender despite many doubting his guilt.


[LIST #3]

Place a tick above each word that you remember from being in either List #1 or List #2.

Spider, feather, citrus, ugly, robber,

Piano, goat, ground, cherry, bitter,

Insect, fruit, suburb, kiwi, quick,

Mouse, pile, fish

 How did you do?

1 Comment

  1. Did the memory thing perfectly, but I’m not sure about the false memory instillment. Alda just stated that he’d gotten sick as a kid, which is a story, a piece of data. Nowhere did you describe that he created memories of it happening. There are a few events I tell others that my parents said happened to me as a kid (eg. pulling myself out of my baby carriage onto my head). I don’t remember these events, but they are family lore, a mere fact or story without a memory. I do still tell them; I just don’t remember them. And I’m not sure whether the accused man decided to capitulate to the story to make his life easier, parroting back his accuser’s fabricated tales, or if he really remembered these events. I know this was a short article; perhaps there wasn’t time to describe this in detail. But saying something happened, or even picturing in your mind how it might have happened, is not the same as remembering it. (eg., I know my baby carriage was navy blue and I picture it as I tell my falling-out story, but I still do not remember falling.)
    As always, thank you for a thought-provoking article. I really do enjoy your site!

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