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The Misinformation Effect
The misinformation effect refers to the tendency for post-event information to "interfere" with the memory of the original event. This lesson describes how memories are reconstructed, not replayed. Researchers have shown that introducing even relatively subtle information following an event can dramatically influence how people remember. Updated Feb. 24, 2024

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Ira Gorelick

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January 24, 2021

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The misinformation effect refers to the tendency for post-event information to “interfere” with the memory of the original event.

Researchers have shown that introducing even relatively subtle information following an event can dramatically influence how people remember.

The misinformation effect can lead to inaccurate memories and, in some cases, result in the formation of false memories.

The misinformation effect illustrates how easily memories can be influenced.

It also raises concerns about the reliability of memory—particularly when the memories of eyewitnesses (eyewitness testimony) are used to determine criminal guilt.

Overview of the Misinformation Effect

The work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues has demonstrated that the questions asked after a person witnesses an event can actually have an influence on the person’s memory of that event.

Her work helped usher in a paradigm shift, rendering obsolete the archival model of memory—the idea, dominant for much of the twentieth century, that our memories exist in some sort of mental library as literal representations of past events.

According to Loftus, who has published twenty-four books and more than six hundred papers, memories are reconstructed, not replayed.

“Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality,” she has written. “It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-­like creature.”

If a question contains misleading information, it can distort the memory of the event, a phenomenon that psychologists have dubbed “the misinformation effect.”

Loftus explained, “The misinformation effect refers to the impairment in memory for the past that arises after exposure to misleading information.”

Research Into the Misinformation Effect

In a famous experiment conducted by Loftus, participants were shown video footage of a traffic accident.

After watching the clip, the participants were asked several questions about what they had observed, much like police officers, accident investigators, and attorneys might question eyewitnesses.

One of the questions asked was, “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” In some instances, however, a subtle change was made; participants were instead asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed into” each other.

The researchers discovered that simply using the word “smashed” instead of “hit” could change how the participants remembered the accident.

A week later, the participants were once again asked a series of questions, including “Did you see broken glass?

Most participants correctly answered no, but those who had been asked the “smashed into” version of the question in the initial interview were more likely to believe that they had seen broken glass incorrectly.

How can such a minor change lead to such differing memories of the same video clip? Experts suggest that this is an example of the misinformation effect at work.

This memory phenomenon occurs when misleading or incorrect information is introduced into memory and even contributes to forming false memories.

Why the Misinformation Effect Happens

Why does the misinformation effect happen? There are a few different theories.

  • One explanation is that the original and misleading information presented blended together in memory after the fact.
  • Another possibility is that the misleading information overwrites the event’s original memory.
  • Researchers have also suggested that since the misleading information is more recent in memory, it tends to be easier to retrieve.
  • In other cases, the pertinent data from the original event may never have been encoded into memory in the first place, so when misleading information is presented, it is incorporated into the mental narrative to fill in these “gaps” in memory.

I think the last theory makes the most sense to me.

The brain works like a “quantum cloud.” Everything is fuzzy and probabilistic. Nothing in the brain is digital. It is all analog.

Influencing Factors

Research has shown that there are several factors that can contribute to the misinformation effect and make it more likely that false or misleading information distorts memories of events.

  • Discussing the Event with Other Witnesses. Talking to other witnesses following an event can distort a person’s original memory. Reports given by other witnesses might conflict with someone’s original memory of an event. The new information might reshape or distort a witness’s original memory of the events as they occurred.
  • News Reports. Reading news stories and watching television reports of an accident or event can also contribute to the misinformation effect. People often forget the original source of information, which means that they might mistakenly believe that a piece of information was something they observed personally, when in reality, it was something they heard in a post-event news report.
  • Repeated Exposure to Misinformation. The more often people are exposed to misleading information, the more likely they are to incorrectly believe that the misinformation was part of the original event.
  • Time. If the misleading information is presented sometime after the original memory, it is likely to be much more accessible in memory. In these cases, the misleading information is much easier to retrieve, effectively blocking the retrieval of the original, correct information.

A Word From ​Verywell

The misinformation effect can have a profound impact on our memories. What can prevent intervening information and events from altering memories or even creating false memories? Writing down your memory of an important event immediately after it happens is one strategy that might help minimize the effects. That said, even this strategy can introduce subtle errors and writing these mistakes will further cement them in your memory.

Being aware that you are susceptible to influence on your memory is a helpful and important strategy. While you might have a good memory, understand that anyone can be affected by the misinformation effect

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/05/how-elizabeth-loftus-changed-the-meaning-of-memory

https://atlantisschoolofcommunication.org/communications-foundations/history-of-communication/health-misinformation/