“False Memories and Persuasion Strategies.”- An Interview with Dr Juliana K. Leding

False memories are vivid memories of event that never occurred. These are at times caused by suggestions of people in the place of authority like the police or therapists. By these suggestions, a person is convinced that something that never happened did actually happen. This is what the article “False memories and persuasion strategies.” by Juliana K. Leding talks about. Read further to learn more about the article.

1.Could you touch a bit on what the research is for our audience who may be learning about the topic for the first time?

The main focus of my research is on false memories. We can think of false memories as being memories for events that never happened or happened in a different way than what we remember. The memory can feel real and be full of vivid details and yet the event never happened or the event happened in a way that is different from the way we remember it. False memories can occur naturally in our lives or they can be suggested or implanted during an experimental situation.

When I was in graduate school I had the opportunity to take a Social Psychology seminar class that was focused on persuasion strategies. As I read the literature on various persuasion strategies I saw many connections between the strategies that lead to persuasion and the strategies that can be used to create or enhance false memories. My paper on this topic reviews the literature and outlines various persuasion strategies and how they have been used to elicit false memories in the lab and in real life.

2.What got you interested in studying about false memories?

I find the topic fascinating. At first glance our memories seem like a true story of our life. When we look deeper, though, we realize that our memories are malleable and thus vulnerable to errors. The part that I find so fascinating is that we are sometimes not aware of the errors and hold onto false memories as being a real memory of an event that is part of our personal history. There is a quote in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park that resonates well with my fascination with memory and my desire to learn as much about it as possible:

“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligence’s. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.” Fanny Price, Chapter 22

3.Why do you think people are more likely to believe false memories when they are suggested by an authority figure?

We are more likely to believe true information when it is presented by an authority figure. We assume that, because of the authority-figure status of the individual, that person must know what they are talking about and we are less likely to question that information. Many times we have no reason to question the authority figure. Thus, if an authority figure is intentionally or unintentionally presenting false information then we are going to be more likely to believe that that person knows what they are talking about. If the information conflicts with our own memory of the event it is possible that the false information becomes incorporated into our memory. For example, if I am an eyewitness to a crime and the police officer interviewing me asks about what type of gun the suspect was carrying, even if I did not see a gun, I would likely believe that there was a gun because the police officer knows more about the overall situation than I do and presumably would not have asked about a gun if there had not been one. When I am then asked about the crime at a later time (e.g., during the trial) I would be more likely to falsely remember that there was a gun due to that previous suggestion from an authority figure.

4.In your paper, you talk about persuasion strategy bring used when questioning victims.  How do you think the officer should avoid asking leading questions?

This is a somewhat tricky task. When questioning a victim or eyewitness, the questioner should avoid asking leading questions such as “Did the person seem mean?” or “What type of gun was the person using?” so that those pieces of potentially false information (i.e., that the person was mean or that there was a gun) do not become incorporated into the memory of the person being interviewed. This is easier said than done, however, because the interviewer is motivated to get as much information as possible and might not even realize that they are asking a leading question. One way to help avoid leading questions would be to ask open ended questions (e.g., “can you tell me about the person?”). It could also be helpful to have someone who is unfamiliar with the details of the situation ask the questions so that they cannot incorporate potentially leading information into the questions, which would make them appear as if they are an authority about the situation.

5.What steps do you think should be taken by police officers and therapists to avoid persuasion strategy in their questions?

First, it is important to point out that not all police officers and therapists are utilizing these strategies. Many of the examples discussed in the paper are of extreme cases that are not representative of the majority of interactions that people have with police officers and therapists. That being said, just with the fact that a police officer or therapist is often perceived as an authority figure, this can lead to unintentional influence that makes the person being questioned more susceptible to leading questions and incorporating false information into their memory. Therefore, trying to avoid leading questions and avoiding repeatedly suggesting information would be some of the best ways to avoid the unintentional influence.

6.What steps do you think individuals could take to keep themselves from believing in false memories?

False memories happen in our day to day life – we are often unaware that they exist, however, because we do not have a recording of our life that we can go back and examine to see if our memory matches up with the reality of what actually happened. People often become aware that they have a false memory of an event when reminiscing with family members and two or more family members have a different version of a memory for the same event. When this happens, unless there is photographic or video evidence, it is often impossible to tell which family member has the accurate memory and which has the false memory, or if they are both experiencing false memories for the same event.

Knowing that false memories can happen, however, can help us better understand situations such as why you and your sibling remember the same event differently, why someone could be falsely accused of a crime based on erroneous eyewitness identification, or how someone could confess to a crime that they did not commit. Realizing that our memories can feel real but be false can help people when faced with a high-stakes situation where they must rely on their memory, such as completing an eyewitness identification or trying to remember events that might have happened in their lives in a therapeutic setting.

7.Where are studies at the moment and where do you anticipate findings going in the next year or so?

One main focus of my current research is whether there are individual differences that make a person more susceptible to experiencing false memories. I have been looking at Need for Cognition and have found that individuals who are high in Need for Cognition are more prone to false memories in situations where the false memories are due to elaboration of the information they are presented (e.g., in the DRM paradigm) and less prone to false memories in situations where elaboration of the information encourages the avoidance of false memories (e.g., in situation where they can utilize recollection rejection). My most recent examination on NFC and false memories is with a former student and we are exploring the misinformation effect in individuals high and low in NFC.

8.Do you have additional resources or further readings for those who want to learn more about the topic?

For people interested in the various persuasion strategies discussed in the paper, this book is the one that we used in my seminar class:

Knowles, E. S., & Linn, J. A. (2004). Resistance and persuasion. Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

One of the original papers showing evidence that false memories for events can be experimentally created:

Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric
Annals, 25(12), 720-725. doi:10.3928/0048-5713-19951201-07

One of the most powerful sources of information about how impactful wrongful eyewitness identification can be is the Innocence Project website:

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Knowing that we have false memories and how easily they can be suggested by a person in authority, makes me wonder how much we can really trust our memories when we cannot be even sure if an event actually happened.

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