Police interrogation techniques generate false memories of committing crimes

Psychologists terminated a study that showed the ease of implanting false memories of committing terrible, violent crimes in the recent past in their subjects -- the experiment was terminated because some subjects couldn't be convinced that they hadn't committed the crime after they were told the truth.

The techniques used by the psychologists were a lot less manipulative and stressful than those routinely deployed by police interrogators who are anxious to secure confessions. It's a disturbing result that calls into question decades of guilty pleas all over the world.

Researchers questioned the students for three sessions of about 40 minutes each. They asked them to recall two events in their past: the true event and an added false one, both of which they said the caregivers had told them about. The false event was described in as general terms as possible — simply “an assault” or “an incident where you were in contact with the police.”

If subjects said they couldn’t remember the false event, questioners reassured them they would be able to retrieve their “lost memories” if they tried hard enough. If they began to “remember,” experimenters asked for more detail. Do you recall any images? How did you feel? Visualize what it might have been like, they said, and the memory will come back to you.

By the end of the third interview, more than 70 per cent of subjects came to believe they had committed a crime just five or so years in the past. They didn’t merely agree they had done what the experimenters suggested — they generated all the details of the crime themselves, recalling vivid sensory memories and often becoming emotional and guilt-ridden.

Some subjects persisted in believing they were guilty after they had been told the “crime” had been invented. “A few people argued with the experimenter and said, ‘Well no, I know this happened,’ ” says Porter.

Planting false memories fairly easy, psychologists find [Sarah Barmak/Toronto Star]

(Thanks, Cliff Goldstein!)

Notable Replies

  1. Never talk to the cops. Never.

  2. This is a completely unbelievable psychological trick to use on your spouse if you can stomach feeling like you a kind of subhuman monster: when they do something that they do all the time that annoys you, tell them that it surprises you because that's not like them at all. For instance, suppose they are never remembering to unload the dishwasher. Instead of getting irritated, say, "That's not like you, you always unload the dishwasher right when its finished."

    Somehow, this actually changes how people behave. I know someone who has used it to success despite telling her husband exactly what she was going to do.

  3. The most incredible part of this story to me is the part where they tell people that they implanted the memory and the people are like, "Nope." Having memories implanted is just a vulnerability in our brain architecture, I'm pretty sure. But believing that your memories are infallible is definitely something that you can get over, and if people are getting out of gradeschool without knowing that their memories are made up bits of nonsense their brains strung together that can't be trusted, I think our education system is failing.

  4. Works best if done by gas-light wink

  5. DevinC says:

    Now I want someone else to use this on me. "That's not like you to procrastinate. You usually do the things that need doing right away."

Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

32 more replies