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What are False Memories in Psychology? Everything You Need to Know

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By Augustine Mbam - - 5 Mins Read
How often have you been in situations where you are arguing with someone over what happened? Often you narrate your version of events and believe in it entirely, but the other person says that some parts of it occurred differently. It is pretty standard.   You rely on your memories to recollect and narrate events of your life. But what if these events were either partly or entirely false? This could be due to memory fallibility, known as false memory.   Here's everything you need to know if you’ve come across this term before but don’t entirely know what it is. Let’s jump in.

What is a False Memory?

False memory is a case where people believe how specific incidents have occurred. However, these incidents might not have happened that way. This can include everything from locking the door to witnessing a horrific accident. This complete phenomenon is known as false memories.   Let me give you a simple example. You are narrating the events of your previous birthday party to your friends that happened about a year ago. You remember you wore a dazzling goldish-brown dress. However, in reality, the color of that dress would be pastel green.   In this case, something would’ve made you remember to have a false memory. There can be multiple reasons for forming false memories; sometimes, your brain doesn’t need a reason. To understand to what extent it can occur, let’s take the same example and the same dress you think you were wearing. In reality, there’s a chance you weren’t wearing a dress but a pair of jeans.   While this incident is trivial, and the difference in your dress won’t make a difference to anyone, there are far more serious scenarios. Even the tiniest of differences can completely flip the incident’s narrative. A vehicle accident, a murder, and more come under this category. Multiple people have come out with their stories, and this phenomenon isn’t uncommon.

Factors that Cause False Memories

There are multiple ways your mind can be affected by false memories. Everyone is already affected by these factors, and we all have false memories. The factors include:

Inaccurate Perception.

Sometimes, when the event is happening, you may not perceive it right. This can be one of the most significant factors. This is because while the memory is being fed into your system, it is being subjected to problems that are not helping you perceive it correctly. This could be as mundane as tired or severe as some anesthetic's effects.


Besides perception, another action you do while an event occurs is trying to understand it. For instance, a robber breaks into your house. Now, you’re trying to get out f the house so you can call the police.   During this time, your mind is stressed and anxious because you’re trying to figure out how to leave the house without getting caught. Unfortunately, this, later on, results in false memories. This is because while you try to figure it out, you recall situations/knowledge that can help you.   Whether you used it or not, you might, later on, feel like you did, but that’s merely a false memory.


Sometimes, certain incidents are so similar to others that have previously occurred that you might mix their memories or create an entirely new third memory. This is the third instance.


Besides these, other factors can cause false memories. For instance, people can induce or plant false memories by suggesting something. But, again, this can occur in many ways.   A study showed a video that portrayed a red car causing the yield sign. Later in a memory test, the people were asked if another car passed the stop sign. Thus, this information is subject to change in a later recollection due to what the study’s organizers suggested.   In another experiment, children were exposed to the memory in which they got lost in the mall at a very early age. Even the parents were a part of this, and they complied with these stories.   The parents gave multiple other true accounts to the doctors. When the child went to the doctor and was interviewed about the memories, they could recall them. However, with the memory of getting lost, the subject couldn’t agree.   However, after a month of questioning and interviews, some people retrieved some sort of information from false memories.


So, these are false memories. It is not precisely a disease but a phenomenon we humans can’t avoid. Thus, all of us have, in some way, been affected by this phenomenon.