More Than Half Of All People Remember Events That Never Happened

You heard it somewhere, so it must be true


Nobody has a perfect memory. Sure, most of us would like to believe that our version of events would hold up under scrutiny but a new study found that more than half us are susceptible to believing false memories, convincing ourselves that events in our life happened even when all the tangible evidence suggests otherwise.

If replicated in other studies and backed up by further research, the initial findings could affect everything from criminal court verdicts to what kind of care you receive at the hospital. And the early evidence is strong: in addition to their own findings, the study’s authors relied on evidence from eight other peer-reviewed studies that measured the effectiveness of implanting false memories through suggestion

“The finding that a large portion of people are prone to developing false beliefs is important. We know from other research that distorted beliefs can influence people’s behaviors, intentions and attitudes,” Professor Kimberly Wade, who lead the study at University of Warwick in the U.K., said in a press statement.

More than 400 people took part in the study, during which participants were told details of events that never occurred, usually tied to a participant's childhood. One of the common tests was to provide verbal suggestions that the person in the study had taken part in a hot air balloon ride as a child. Afterward, 30 percent not only believed the event actually happened but would add in additional details about the event that weren’t even planted through suggestions. An additional 23 percent simply claimed to have some memory of the event.

Interestingly, the study’s authors said that when participants were showed visual evidence, like photos of a hot air balloon ride, and told that was from their own past, they were far less likely to take on the suggestion as fact.

Still, the study’s authors say this could have repercussions that extend far beyond innocent childhood memories. Memories of false trauma, or an irrational confidence could alter behaviors and how we approach very real situations in the present and future.

“It can be difficult to objectively determine when someone is recollecting the past, versus reporting other forms of knowledge or belief or describing mental representations that have originated in other sources of experience,” the study’s authors write. “Even under highly controlled laboratory conditions, memory researchers struggle to define and observe memory. How, then, can we expect therapists, forensic investigators, medical personnel, human resource staff, or jurists to be any better at this task?”