A frightening new study shows exactly have fallible and impressionable the human memory can be. Forensic psychologists found that 70 percent of people being interviewed with specific interviewing techniques were made to believe they committed a crime they did not commit. In fact, all of the participants in the study had a clean criminal history.
Not only did the participants admit to committed a crime that never happened, they were also able to create details surrounding the fictional event. The study found that the techniques were so effective at implanting a memory that some participants believed they had committed the action even after interviewers told them it was all fiction.
MSN reports that the study was published in January in the journal Psychological Science. The authors are Julia Shaw of Britain’s University of Bedfordshire, and Stephen Porter, a forensic psychologist who studies the role of memory in the legal system at the University of British Columbia. The researchers recruited 70 participants from a local university who had a clean criminal history. The participants were told that they would be taking part in a study about childhood memories. However, the researchers were really researching the ability of manipulative questioning tactics to embed or create false memories.
What the researchers found was startling and could have major implications in the criminal justice field. For the study, participants were questioned in three separate sessions that lasted just 40 minutes each. During those three simple interviews, the researchers found that 70 percent of the participants came to believe they had committed a crime that never happened.
As the Toronto Star points out, each subject was asked to provide details about two separate incidents — one true, one false. The false incident was described in as little detail as possible. The terms used were very simply such as “an assault,” or “an incident where you were in contact with the police.” If the participant said they couldn’t remember that event, the interviewer would reassure them that the event did take place and that a family member had confirmed the happening. They would then press them to try to retrieve the “lost memory.”
Surprisingly, 70 percent of the participants, through the manipulative questioning, would begin to legitimately recall the event that actually never happened. They would describe it in surprising detail and provide additional insight into how they felt during the event and so on.
The details are significant and prove that manipulative questioning tactics could result in false confessions and details in criminal testimony. Below you will find a real conversation between a participant and the interviewer. The participant is admitting to a serious crime, an assault, that never happened. She even provide details that she “knew for sure.”
Subject: I remember the two cops. There were two. I know that for sure… I have a feeling, like, one was white, and one maybe Hispanic… I remember getting in trouble. And I had to like, tell them what I did. And why I did it, and where it happened…
Interviewer: You remember yelling?
Subject: I feel like she called me a slut. And I got ticked off and threw a rock at her. And the reason why I threw a rock at her was because I couldn’t get close to her…
Interviewer: So you threw a rock instead?
Subject: That was bad. That was bad. Bad scene… Oh wow, that’s crazy.
The most stunning part of the research showed that once the event was embedded into the participant’s memory, it was hard to remove. A number of participants argued with the interviewer when they were told the event never happened. Many of them believed it so firmly they could not let go of the implanted memory. Therefore, after interviewing only 60 participants, the study was deemed complete. With such a high percent of participants proving the theory of planting false memories true, researchers thought it would be cruel to put the last 10 participants through the ordeal.
Did you think it would be so easy to plant false memories in a person with no criminal history? Do you think the study will have implications in the criminal field regarding suspects’ confessions or eye-witness reports?