Create false memories at home for fun and profit!

Science journalist Stephen Ross Pomeroy uses real research to explain how you can trick your friends and loved ones into "remembering" events that never actually happened. Key tips: Don't get too intricate with the details (your mark will fill those in for themselves) and do focus on false memories that would have a strong emotional component.


  1. Ugh. Growing up with a psychopath who used these techniques to mess my brain up (and my ability to remember most of my life), and then spending a portion of life with another psychopath who recognized this vulnerability, makes this prank seriously not fun.

    Please use with discretion. You may find yourself with some one who never wants to hear from you again without even understanding why. Having spent most of my life being gaslighted, reading this gives me the creeps. But if you want protips on making this extra effective, I got ’em. Love the bit about getting people to agree with you. Works great on abused spouses, children, the elderly, and people with various illnesses, histories of abuse, and other people who will love your prank!

    Next prank: how to convince depressed people to commit suicide! Or perhaps: How to get your teenage daughter to think she’s fat!

    On the other hand, noticing how this works can bolster your ability to recognize it. Which can be what saves your life, if you hold onto some certainty that you’re being lied to by multiple people for fun and profit.

    1. I’m guessing that you, like me, watch comedies like Muriel’s Wedding or Mrs. Doubtfire and find them incredibly depressing.

        1. Sometimes I get blindsided when I see a film that’s just come out and I don’t know how dysfunctional it’s going to be.  “No, really.  Making the deadbeat father the hero and the hard-working mother the villain is HILARIOUS!”

          1. This happened to me with “Our Idiot Brother” recently. Oh how cute! I don’t care if everyone loves Zooey Deschanel. It’s not her fault, but lord I left that film with so much anger.

            I was like “oh dear, next is the part where they’re all going to come make it up to him now that he’s hurting himself to get back at them by facing the consequences of his own actions” and I instinctively started grinding my teeth.

            Yes, what a way to punish people– refuse to let them bail you out of your own self-made problems after hurting them. And boom, of course everything they experience was invalid and they just needed to learn from it and praise him for it. Him, of course, he doesn’t need to learn or grow. He’s the narcissist. Oops… Arrrrgh… I’m still sorry I agreed to go.

  2. Interesting: Hey Maggie, I saw you at a signing of Before the Lights Go Out a few months back. Barely got my book signed before you had to leave because some nut was going on and on that Peak Oil is a a conspiracy of the big oil companies and took up too much of your time. He was one of those “Abiotic Oil” crackpots who thinks that if we just drill a little deeper we’ll get to the layer where oil is produced by inorganic processes. He really started haranguing you pretty badly. I thought someone might have to call the cops, but he eventually left. I bet you remember him like it was yesterday.

    1.  A great example on another level as well because the fictional haranguer was obviously a victim himself of some Abiotic Oil idea inception by a less than scrupulous, but nevertheless-trusted-to-him information source…

  3. I think this is repost, from back when Truman Capote still wrote for Boing Boing, before they were purchased by Gawker Media.  I remember because I was watching season 3 of Firefly at the time.

    1.  Funny you write this as On The Media just re-aired their episode exploring Truman Capote and the truth/fiction line in In Cold Blood, leading to a discussion of what the lines are in narrative non-fiction. Not only is the topic relevant, but they also didn’t mention that it was a rebroadcast (or I missed it), and they mixed in some new content. Made me wonder whether the first listen I was recalling was al in my head….

      1. Well… I actually listened to that episode, while drifting off to sleep, so perhaps that’s where the seeds were planted.

  4. I’m sorry but taking the word of your friends for something you don’t remember is not the creation of a false memory. At best it is creating a false belief (since you’re accepting their word over your own lack of any such memory). Using guided imagery to fantasize about what an event may have been like is not creating a false memory either (though if one uses such imaginings to conform to the social pressure not to have no recollection of the event is an interesting social pressure phenomenon). If you follow the course of the links, you end up with an article from the courtroom’s favorite psychologist, Elizabeth Loftus. That astronomer Carl Sagan was interested in whether false memories could be created is nice, but even if he were alive today he’d have no clear answer – the profit motives of folks like Loftus are too great, and the distinction between what is a memory and what is an act of conforming has yet to be explored.

    1. Could you provide some links with evidence that Loftus’s research is flawed in some way?

      The fact that she testifies in court a lot isn’t really a mark against her, considering how many innocent people have gone to prison because of baseless claims of repressed memories.

      1. Google why she was forced to resign from her university. No need to rehash the controversial life of Elizabeth Loftus when volumes have been written about it already. (By the way your idea that her research is flawed in some way may not be relevant. The issue as always is the conclusions or opinions one draws from the results of one’s research.)

        1. Okay, I did that.  There’s nothing about her being “forced to resign from her university.”

          She was sued by a woman who had claimed to have repressed memories, and all but one allegation was dismissed, the remaining one settled by her insurance company for $7500.  When the allegations were first made, according to Wikipedia, the University of Washington “confiscated Loftus’ files and put Loftus under investigation for 21 months, forbidding her to share her findings in the mean time. She was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing by the university, and allowed to publish her findings in 2002.”

          In 2002, she left the University of Washington for UC Irvine, “where she is a Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology, and a Professor of Law, and of Cognitive Science in the Departments of Psychology and Social Behavior, and Criminology, Law, and Society.” 

          There was some criticism of some of her “Lost in the Mall” study – which has since been replicated repeatedly – but nothing out of the ordinary in the field of psychology, and nothing that has prevented her from being recognized for her work by a variety of respected scientific organizations.

          So, personal attacks aside, if there is any evidence that her work on false memory has been debunked in any way whatsoever, I’d appreciate a link.

          1. Seems like google worked just fine there. You were perhaps trying to make a subtle distinction by noting that she was allowed to leave rather than be fired outright? You were asking about her reputation, and you found it out: A career of praise and condemnation, with plenty of peer opinion on her theories. 
            Trying to imply that her theories have been universally accepted, by asking for “any evidence that her work on false memory has been debunked” is far removed from how things work. When peers review other peer’s work, and disagree with it, that isn’t called “debunking”. Why not go to a university library with access to journals on memory and spend a few years reading the different opinions, rather than trying to imply there aren’t any other learned opinions if I don’t link to one!

          2. I agree that “debunked” was probably the wrong word to use.  But Google didn’t turn up anything that suggested Loftus was “forced to resign from her university.”  She was cleared of any wrongdoing and she moved immediately into another prestigious program.

            Indeed, the googled phrase “elizabeth loftus forced to resign” produces absolutely nothing, as well.  

            So, are you mistaken, or should I just go to a university library?

            The only reason I asked in the first place was that your reaction to Loftus being referenced in the article was to make a remark about her being “the courtroom’s favorite psychologist” (I suspect the victims of false memory accusations are glad she testified for their defense) and of a “profit motive” as some sorts of reasons her work isn’t as conclusive as is asserted.  I merely asked for actual evidence of that, and was given, instead, an accusation that she was “forced to resign from her university.”

            And here finally, the “look it up yourself” response to my pointing out that accusing someone of being forced to resign from their job doesn’t equal evidence (especially when the accusation appears to be baseless). So, I’m afraid we’ve reached an impasse.  Oh, well.

  5. Lately I’ve actually wondered sometimes whether my husband might be playing a trick like this on me. I have an eidetic memory. With the exception of about a 6-month period during which I was extremely sleep deprived after having a baby, I have never had trouble storing and recalling memories clearly and in great detail. However, recently there have been times where I have a blank spot in my memory: I remember things just before and just after some event, but I can’t recall the event itself. I don’t think I’ve forgotten the event, the memory just never got stored in the first place, like a video camera that stops recording for a moment. It’s been perfectly mundane things like suddenly noticing that a pillow from the closet is on the bed, but not remembering having put it there myself a few minutes earlier. Or commenting on an interesting piece of street art, but not remembering having seen it at all when I saw it again later. In all of the cases, my husband was the one who filled in the blanks for me. As disturbing as the possibility that he’s messing with my head is, being unable to remember things I’ve done is even more disturbing and not something I’m used to.

    1. Could be age-related, or thyroid-related, or just exhaustion-related.  (Been there, done that, got all three t-shirts.)

      Or he’s messing with you.  But I’d look to medical reasons first.

  6. I think this is pretty mean to do to somebody else, but…

    I really wish I could do it on myself.

    Hey, self, remember the time I fell into a parallel world that I subsequently saved and became king of, before happening through another portal that sent me back to Earth and no time had passed?


    Keep trying.

  7. Holy god. I agree with the first commenter; this is commonly called gaslighting and I think it’s a form of abuse. It’s certainly a common hallmark of abusive relationships. I also suspect it’s used far more often by perpetrators to make victims “forget” about abuse than it’s used to make non-victims falsely remember abuse. 

    If I had a friend who tried to gaslight me – about anything at all – I would never speak to them again. For anyone who has experienced gaslighting as a form of abuse, it’s incredibly toxic and debilitating. Our narratives of reality – past and present – don’t just help one understand the world, they also help constitute one’s sense of self. This is a hard thing to wrap your head around unless you’ve had someone wage a systematic campaign to undermine your memories.

    If you playfully gaslight a friend who’s been abused in this way (keeping in mind not everyone discloses that sort of thing) you might lose a friend. Or hurt them really badly.

  8. Back to the thread a third time to let everyone know about a really good book on the basic physiology of memory in the nervous system; In Search of Memory by Eric Kandel. It’s also his autobiography, Holocaust memoir, and a history of nerve cell physiology. Fascinating book.

    One of Kandlel’s main points in the book is that memory is changeable and revisable because it’s made of the same stuff as conditioned reflexes. Such reflexes can change as stimuli change, and that’s a good thing, as it allows an organism to behave appropriately as its environment changes. But since memories are made of the same stuff as conditioned reflexes, memories can be changed and revised.

    Kandel won the Nobel a few years ago for his work on the gill retraction reflex in sea slugs. The implications of his work have been awesome, touching on issues like prion disease and dementia, as well as legal issues related to problems with witness testimony.

    And yeah, as others have mentioned here, gaslighting sucks. Fortunately I nevery experienced it. We were more of a Soviet Encyclopedia type family. You could think whatever you wanted as long as you acted like the official entries were the truth.

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