It turns out to be eerily straightforward to set up the conditions to give someone a false memory. Simply introduce an authority expert, mix falsehood with reality, and apply social pressure. The result is unmistakable—a false memory gains very real traction in someone’s mind.
Julia Shaw : So the recipe for creating a false memory was always the same for every single participant.
I’ve gained their trust because I’ve introduced this event that they know happened, that they have all this vivid memory for quite often. And so now I give positive reinforcement and say, “You did such a great job. Let’s hope you have as many details for the next event.”
So the other event, which your parents reported happening, was when you were 14 years old, you initiated a physical fight and the police called your parents.
When you were 12, you initiated a physical fight and the police called your parents.
They said it happened in Kelowna in the fall. You were with Ryan when it happened? And it was out of character.
Participant 1 : What?
Shaw : Were you close with Connor?
Participant 1 : Yeah, he was my best friend.
Participant 2 : Honestly, I don’t remember. Like, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Participant 1 : Very odd. I don’t remember this taking place at all.
Shaw : When a person is having trouble remembering, repeatedly thinking about an event will usually lead to a more complete memory for it. So I’d like to take you mentally back to the scene where the event happened. And what it does is it puts you back into your 14-year-old you, and it gives you the context for helping you remember. I’d like you to relax, close your eyes, and focus your attention on trying to retrieve this memory.
Participant 2 : Ok.
Shaw : So picture yourself at the age of 14. Imagine what it looks like and feels like to be there. Try to remember what the weather was like. Remember, it’s fall, in Kelowna, and you’re with Ryan. Try to remember where you had the fight. Try to remember who you were fighting. Try to remember what thoughts were running through your head. Try to remember how you were feeling.
Saying that this memory retrieval technique works for most people if they try hard enough—that’s a subtle social pressure that actually has quite a profound impact where you’re saying, “If you don’t get this memory back, you just didn’t try hard enough.”
Participant 1 : I only remember a few possibilities of people I could have picked a fight with.
Shaw : Who do you think it could have been?
Participant 1 : There was a bully.
Shaw : When was this?
Participant 2 :This… well, I’m assuming it was in the fall?
Shaw : This is the time you think the police got contacted?
Participant 2 : Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking.
Participant 1 : I just felt this uncontrollable rage. Everything just let loose. There was this strength, this energy that I had never felt before.
Participant 2 : The cops showed up and we were having maybe a verbal fight and maybe it got into a push. And then, at that point, there was cops coming…
Shaw : They had strung themselves out of real pieces, of real places and real people, but in a way that just never actually happened.
- Director of Photography
- Jason Longo
- Producer & Editor
- Ari Daniel
- Original Footage
- © WGBH Educational Foundation 2016
- Experiment Footage
- Julia Shaw
- (main image: Roses)
- Anna Lee Strachan