Science, Misinformation, and Make-Believe Memories

In what is known about memory, our memories serve a purpose of enabling people to make sense of the past and incorporate it into the present experience of life.  This importance of memories according to Loftus (2003) explains that people are the sum of our memories: what we have thought, what we are told, and what we believe.  In addition, we are not only shaped by our memories, but existence is shaped by our personal experience.  Loftus argues that we “seem to reinvent our memories, and in doing so, we become the person of our own imagination”  (p. 872).

An important distinction made about the power of suggestion upon initial memory of an event and how memory that is manipulated impacts beliefs formed about events.  Information offered by Elizabeth Loftus in, Make-Believe Memories, advocates that memories are malleable and subject to distortion and suggestion.  The following observations about how memory is influenced through eyewitness accounts of crimes:

“Misinformation can influence people’s memories when they are in a suggestive fashion or when they talk to other people who give their version of events. Misinformation can sway people when they see biased media coverage about some event that they may have experienced themselves. This phenomenon would ultimately be called the misinformation effect [Loftus’ italics]” (p. 868).

An apparent assumption about initial memory of an event is that it is influenced by suggestion and post-memory influences, but also by the weight of said influences upon the person holding the memory.  A good place to begin in an understanding what misinformation effect actually means.

A dictionary description of the misinformation effect given in the APA Dictionary of Psychology (2007) states, “a phenomenon in which a person mistakenly recalls misleading information that an experimenter has provided, instead of accurately recalling the correct information that has been presented earlier (VandenBos, 2007).  This theory often used in connection with eyewitness memory of events in the investigation procedure.  Loftus cites a cause and effect relationship between what is presented to witnesses to a crime responses to questions asked i.e., “Research on memory distortion has shown that post event suggestion can contaminate what a person remembers” (p. 867).  As a result, a fair assumption about recall of a crime or incident is that the further removed a witness is from the incident and the more times it is discussed the greater chance there is that misinformation effect jades original memories of the event and details.

The position of this article presents the opinion that memory can be distorted by interjecting information and by using techniques which may be misleading to distort original memory.  What can be learned is that misinformation exerts an influence upon what may have been sensed, experienced, and stored in the memory at the time of an event.  The inference is that memories can be altered or changed in intentional and unintentional ways i.e., “Misinformation can influence people’s memories when they are in a suggestive fashion or when they talk to other people who give their version of events”, as cited in (u04d2 Make-Believe Memories, 2010).  A rational conclusion suggests that changes in memories are connected to the suggestions made by the examiner and suggestibility of the person remembering the account.  As a result, an explanation of the misinformation effect contained within the statement made through: post event suggestion (Loftus, 2003) which alters original memory that is stored as suggestion, as well as exposure to other perspectives about the memory-event places influence upon perception.

One important factor in the process is described by Sternberg (2009), as encoding (p. 217). Based on this description, how a memory is encoded –one’s experience, conditions surrounding an event –factors contributing to retrieval, will affect acquisition of information: “the physical, sensory input into a kind of representation” (p. 217) which distorts original sensory input.  Therefore, the misinformation effect suggests that, “suggestion can lead to false memories being injected outright into the minds of people” (Loftus, 2003).

When questions are asked that are suggestive,  false memories are injected into the first impressions of the person being questioned.  Loftus (2003) reports, “that leading questions could contaminate or distort a witness’s memory … Related studies showed that memory could become skewed with various techniques that fed misinformation to unsuspecting individuals” (Make-believe memories).  This practice is associated with techniques which are used in police-witness interviews to a crime.  For example, “Three errors occurred universally: interrupting the witness, asking too many short-answer questions, and inappropriate sequencing of questions” (Fisher, 1995).  A conclusion can be made here that demonstrates that when rehearsal of the memory is interspersed with the injection of questions, interruptions, dialogue, and questions, the initial sensory perception will become adapted to misinformation that affects perception of the original occurrence.

It may seem on the surface that the misinformation effect presents a negative perspective of how memory can be manipulated and the impact upon a criminal investigation.   However, one application of this theory may be of value when applied to research, which could aid in better training for law enforcement professional when conducting witness interviews.  In addition, another application could be that when misinformation is used to correct distorted memories, it may hold properties of value, which present a therapeutic value.  Some examples could be in treatment with those who have experienced traumatic events that present with PTSD symptoms or anxiety related conditions.

Obviously, this article only scratches the surface and more needs to be written on such an important subject of interest.


Fisher, R. P. (1995). Interviewing victims and witnesses of a crime. Psychology, Public Policy,  Law [electronic version] , 1 (4), 732-764, doi:10.1037/1076-8971.1.4.732.

Loftus, E. F. (2003, November). Make-believe memories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied [electronic version] , 14 (3), pp. 255-265,, doi: 10.1037/1076-898X.14.3.255.

Sternberg, R. J. (2009). Cognitive Psychology (5th Edition ed.). Belmont, California, USA: Wadsworth, Cenage Learning.

u04d2 Make-Believe Memories. (2010). Retrieved 5 2009, August , from Capella Universisty:

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA Dictionary of Psychology. Washington, DC, USA: American Psychological Association.

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