Memory Manipulated After The Event

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Memories are delicate and can
easily be changed after the event.

This is the seventh nomination
for the top ten studies in psychology. After a look at Miller’s magical number
seven, we return to memory but this time not to the information processing
capacity of memory. Instead we examine the quality of our memories, in
particular the ways in which memory can be changed after the event we are
remembering. The work of Elizabeth Loftus has been extremely influential in
this area as one of her early studies demonstrates.
First, a snippet of my
personal history. I have a memory from when I was three years old of playing in
a sandpit. I don’t remember much else about it other than this sandpit was
outside the building in which I lived. For years I used to think this was my
earliest memory, now I’m not so sure and here’s why.
car crash
Like some of the best
experiments, although Loftus and Palmer’s (1974) study was quite simple, its
implications were profound. In the first of two experiments, 45 participants
watched a film of a car accident. Nine of these were then asked this specific
question: “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”. The
other four groups of nine were asked an almost identical question but with one
important difference. Instead of the word hit, the words ‘smashed’, ‘collided’,
bumped, and ‘contacted’ were used.
The participants who were
asked the question using the word ‘smashed’ as opposed to ‘contacted’,
estimated the cars were travelling, on average, almost 10mph faster. The other
words were fanned out in between.
So, what is this telling us?
Probably, that because people are not good at gauging the speed of a car, the
cue comes from the experimenter. If the experimenter asks the question using
the word ‘smashed’, the participant assumes it was going faster than if they
say ‘contacted’.
“It’s in the follow-up study
that things get interesting.”It’s in the follow-up study that things get
interesting. The same experiment was repeated roughly as before, but with 150
participants. This time, however, participants filled out a questionnaire about
the crash and were then asked to return in a week. As before, the question
about the speed of the crash was varied between groups. Some read ‘hit’, some
‘smashed’ and so on.
One week later participants
returned and were asked to fill out a questionnaire about the accident in which
was hidden a crucial question: “Did you see any broken glass?”. As broken glass
is indicative of a more serious accident, so greater speed, Loftus and Palmer
expected the group in which the word ‘smashed’ had been used would be more
likely to indicate there was broken glass. This was exactly what they found.
Reporting their experiment
Loftus and Palmer adopt a cautious tone as befits a journal article. For them
it is a replication of a fact already known. That the phrasing of a question
about an event can affect our memory for that event. For me, although the
experiment is deceptively simple, it goes to the heart of how memories are
constructed. It makes me wonder if that childhood sandpit in my mind’s eye is
really something I can remember.
What about your childhood
memories? What about your memory for last week? To what extent are things you
remember happening a week ago affected by intervening events and people? The
beauty of Loftus and Palmer’s experiment is it shows how important other people
can be in shaping our own memories.
Whether or not my memory is
real or a construction isn’t so important in the context of that sandpit, but
what if I’m an eyewitness to a serious crime, called to testify in court? What
if an adult ‘recovers’ a memory of being abused by their parents as a child? The
answers to these questions have vital impacts on the lives of all those
involved. Loftus’ later work has taken in both of these highly controversial
questions, and more.
Still, my thoughts often
return to this original study in more mundane, personal terms. Do I really
remember that sandpit? I can see myself sitting there, playing, looking up past
the building, into the sky. If that memory is false, can I ever really remember
the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.