Tuesday, March 1, 2016

More Baloney about Implanting False Memories

TV show available at

In an otherwise excellent episode of Nova on PBS about recent research into memory - available for viewing in its entirety at the website above - the show takes what is for me a disturbing turn around the 38 minute mark. It starts to discuss the issue of whether false memories can be implanted in people. An academic psychologist named Julia Shaw discussed her experiments which she believes "proved" that you can induce in someone a memory of a crime in the distant past that they did not actually commit.

Dr. Julia Shaw

According to an article in the New Yorker, Shaw modeled her work after that of child abuse apologist and memory pseudo-expert Elizabeth Lofton. Shaw claimed that she was able to induce this kind of false memory in 70% of her subjects. Of course, even if this were true, it means that she was unable to supposedly accomplish this feat in almost one third of her subjects, which leaves us with the question of what distinguishes that portion of the sample from the others.

But leaving that aside, let's look at the experiment she did, as shown with a film of one probably illustrative subject during the experiment. The experimenter brought up a supposed incident that occurred when the subject was 12 years old. Dr. Shaw told the subject that the subject's parents had told her about the false incident. She said, "What happened was you initiated a fight that was so severe that the police called your parents. They said it happened in the fall when you were with Ryan when it happened." She mentioned two facts that were in fact true - a move the family had made around that time, and the name of someone she knew.

The subject's first response was not surprising, and it was quite definitive - if not emphatic. As I relate the dialog in the experiment, I want readers to notice that the subject moves from a quick and clear-cut response at first, denying this happened, to later describing an event that she starts to think may possibly have happened. In the later interview, not only is her language tentative, but she looks puzzled and is intermittently shaking her head no! If you don't believe me, watch the show segment for yourself by clicking on the link under the picture at the top of the post.

The key point the reader should also consider is that the experimenter has now put the subject in the position of calling her parents liars! If they are generally truthful, hearing that they reported something that seems completely alien to her whole personality will at the very least introduce cognitive dissonance and self doubt. I mean, why would her parents make up something like that? This self doubt is clearly manifested in the patient's facial expressions and tone of voice as she says the things she says in the film. 

However, even if the parents were notorious for being fast and loose with the truth or made a habit of blaming the subject for things that were not her fault (a not uncommon feature in dysfunctional families), due to family loyalty the patient might still become motivated to protect her parents' reputation to the experimenter and perhaps also to save herself from an argument with the parents later on. Family loyalty is something Dr. Shaw apparently either knows nothing about and/or has never even considered.

The subject's initial response to the experimenter relating to her what her parents allegedly said had "happened" was this:  "Honestly, I don't remember. I don't know what you're talking about. I don't think I've ever been in a fight." (She laughs). I'm so confused!" While she said this, I observed not the least bit of hesitation.

Dr. Shaw admits during the program that she uses techniques meant to create social pressure to get the subject to come up with the false "memory." Experiments in social psychology have shown that the pressure to conform to a group can cause people to say things that they actually know are not true. In other words, they blatantly lie in order to fit in. The most famous of these experiments were done by Soloman Asch, as described here.

Shaw tells the subject, "Relax, close your eyes, and focus on trying to retrieve this." This instruction implicitly assumes that the event the experimenter concocted actually took place. Then comes a little extra social pressure: "It seems strange, but it does work for most people." She then has the patient picture herself at the time and place under discussion. "Picture yourself at the age of 14 and it's Fall and you were with Ryan when it happened."

A week later, the subject starts talking tentatively, "I remember like a verbal fight." She has an unmistakable puzzled look on her face. "It seems so unlikely." Clearly, she is not really recalling any specific event, but trying to put together bits and pieces in her memory from other things that might have happened to her - again, I strongly suspect, to avoid either saying or believing that her parents have lied about her. 

She continues, "Maybe I pushed or something."

Shaw encourages her to continue. "Good! Ok!"

Subject: "I feel like she pushed [significant pause] me first. 

Feeling like something might be true is hardly the same as actually remembering it.

A week later, the subject embellishes the non-story: "I think the cops showed up." (Translation: I'm not really sure about this). "We were kind of having maybe like a verbal kind of fight and it got into a push." Maybe? Again, does not sound like a specific memory at all. And the coup-de-grace: After saying this, she again shakes her head no.

Dr. Shaw confidently asserts that she has now proven that you can induce false memories in people, when what she actually proved was that under conditions of social pressure, cognitive dissonance, and/or family loyalty issues (and probably in several other contexts), you can induce people to make stuff up. And sometimes even lie to themselves about it.


  1. Shaw did not get on that show because of her exquisite experimental technique, we both know that. Now exquisite looks, yeah, that'll do fine.

  2. This "doctor" sounds like she shouldn't even be working with children...

  3. This reminds me of one aspect of the Reid technique for police interrogation. Get the suspect to state a hypothetical, for how the crime would go if they had committed it. Of course, the Reid technique has been found to produce numerous false confessions, though those are often not discovered until after the actually innocent person has spent more than a decade in prison for a crime they didn't commit.


  5. I really like this analysis. I would like to re-blogg it if that's OK

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Sure. Just provide a link back to the original.

  6. That brings up a form of abuse some parents use to cover up what they do: GASLIGHTING. They beat or injure the child, then make up a story to explain away the injuries. The child is supposed to believe this as well, and is, or may be, told they are evil or mentally ill when they try to argue the truth. "Susie, you know Daddy didn't hit you. You fell off the swing." The effects of this get worse as the child gets older. The victim winds up doubting their own sanity. At the very least they are deeply scared of the parent, because they know they won't be believed if they try to report the abuse.