The Misinformation Effect and False Memories
The misinformation effect refers to the tendency for post-event information to interfere with the memory of the original event. Researchers have shown that the introduction of even relatively subtle information following an event can have a dramatic effect on how people remember.
The misinformation effect can lead to inaccurate memories and, in some cases, result in the formation of false memories.1
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) is used to determine criminal guilt.
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.2
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.”2
In a famous experiment conducted by Loftus, participants were shown video footage of a traffic accident.3 After watching the clip, the participants were then asked a number of questions about what they had observed, much in the same way police officers, accident investigators, and attorneys might question an eyewitness.
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.
What the researchers discovered was 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 of the 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 incorrectly believe that they had indeed seen broken glass.
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 takes place when introducing misleading or incorrect information into memory and even contribute to the formation of false memories.
Why the Misinformation Effect Happens
Why does the misinformation effect happen? There are a few different theories.4
- One explanation is that the original information and the misleading information presented after the fact get blended together in memory.5
- Another possibility is that the misleading information actually overwrites the original memory of the event.
- Researchers have also suggested that since the misleading information is more recent in memory, it tends to be easier to retrieve.6
- In other cases, the pertinent data from the original event may never have been encoded into memory in the first place, so that when misleading information is presented, it is incorporated into the mental narrative to fill in these “gaps” in memory.
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.4
- Discussing the Event with Other Witnesses. Talking to other witnesses following an event can distort a person’s original memory.7 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.7
- 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 some time after the original memory, it is likely to be much more accessible in memory.7 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 good memory, understand that anyone can be affected by the misinformation effect