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Can we believe our memories?


The use of photographs by psychotherapists as memory cues for the "recovery" of patients’ possible childhood sexual abuse has been called into question by a Canadian study. It found that a "staggering" two-out-of-three participants accepted a concocted false grade-school event as having really happened to them when suggestions regarding the event were supplemented with a class photo.

"I was flabbergasted to have attained such an exceptionally high rate of quite elaborate false memory reports," says University of Victoria psychology professor Dr. Stephen Lindsay. His NSERC-sponsored research is published in the March 2004 issue of Psychological Science.

Forty-five first year psychology students were told three stories about their grade-school experiences and asked about their memories of them. Two of the accounts were of real grade three to six events recounted to the researchers by the participant’s parents. The third event was fictitious, but also attributed to the parents. It related how, in grade one, the subject and a friend got into trouble for putting Slime (a colourful gelatinous goo-like toy made by Mattel that came in a garbage can) in their teacher’s desk.

The participants were encouraged to recall the events through a mix of guided imagery and "mental context re-instatement"--the mental equivalent of putting themselves back in their grade-school shoes. Half of the participants were also given their real grade one class photo, supplied by their parents.

The photo had a dramatic impact on the rate at which participants thought they had some memory of the imaginary Slime event.

About a quarter of the participants without a photo said they had some memory of the false event. But 67-per cent of those with a photo claimed to have a memory of the non-event--a rate that is double that found in any other study of false memory of autobiographical pseudoevents.

"The false memories were richly detailed," says Dr. Lindsay, whose research focuses on memory and who co-authored the paper with a team from the University of Victoria and the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Of those who claimed to remember the Slime event, most did so with just as much confidence as for the two real events.

When asked which of the events didn’t really happen, all but three of the participants said it was the Slime event. Even so, the fact that it was concocted elicited surprised reactions, including the comment, "No way! I remembered it! That is so weird!"

Dr. Lindsay attributes the remarkably high rate of false memory to several factors. These include the plausibility of the Slime scenario (including that a friend was involved), the confidence inspired by the skilled and outgoing interviewee Lisa Hagen, a former student and co-author on the paper, and the role of the photo as both a memory prod and seemingly corroborating piece of evidence.

"The findings support the general theoretical perspective that memories aren’t things that are stored somewhere in your head," says Dr. Lindsay. "Memories are experiences that we can have that arise through an interaction between things that really have happened to us in the past and our current expectations and beliefs."

He acknowledges that the use of suggestive memory "recovery" techniques by psychotherapists has declined since the late-1980s when it hit fad status. At the time, efforts to "recover" repressed childhood trauma memories were encouraged by such popular books as The Courage to Heal.

"But there still are people who use trauma-oriented memory approaches to therapy. And our results argue for caution in the use of any of these suggestive techniques," says Dr. Lindsay. "Results like these support the concern that these kinds of techniques increase the likelihood that people will experience false memories."

Contact: Dr. Stephen Lindsay 250-721-8593 or

A PDF version of the article "True Photographs and False Memories" can be found at

The published article is:
Lindsay, D.S., Hagen, L., Read, J.D., Wade, K.A. & Garry, M. (2004). "True photographs and false memories." Psychological Science, Vol. 15, 149-154.

Journal Web link: http://

Dr. Stephen Lindsay | EurekAlert!
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