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A Review on an Article - When Photographs Create False Memories

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A Review On An Article

When Photographs Create False Memories

Nishita Kanodia


Many times, while listening to a story about our childhood from our parents, we try to recall if we remember any details about the event. After hearing of our escapade multiple times, many of us may actually start recalling some parts of the event whether it is true or not. Similarly, photographs help us add details to this memory conjured up by our parents’ tales. Photographs can help jog your memory, illustrate your stories, be a beloved token of a cherished memory, etc. They can also, however, create false memories, as shown in the article reviewed.

Narratives can easily be used to remember memories long forgotten. So, when used to conjure up false memories amongst test subjects by Loftus and Pickrell (1995), it showed how easy it was to make people remember wholly false events. By narrating true stories about the subject’s childhood to the subject, a false story of being lost in a mall was slipped in. At the end of the experiment, 25% of the subjects claimed to remember some details of the event. Other similar studies had 33% of the subjects believing in false stories.

Similarly, another group of researchers, inspired by the ‘Lost in the Mall’ experiment, doctored childhood pictures to portray the test subject and a family member on a hot air balloon. Coupled with three other true childhood photographs, the doctored photograph was shown to the test subject. 50% of the subjects, after seeing the picture three times over two weeks, actually claimed to remember the incident (which never happened) with rich details and were genuinely surprised when they learnt that the photograph was a fake.

Memories arise both from perceptual experiences and from one's thoughts, feelings, inferences, and imagination. The subjects confuse these mental products that arise from the photographs as a genuine experience. Hence, source confusion occurs when an individual misattributes a source of a memory.

[pic 1] 

Source: Article, ‘When photographs create false memories’

Similarly, some researchers wrote down the same memory in form of a narrative, including all the details about the hot air balloon ride from the picture. Half of the subjects got the narrative while the other half got the photograph. 80% of the subjects who received the narrative had memories of the event while only 50% of the subjects who received the photograph remembered such an event. Hence, photos might be powerful enough to create false memory, but not as much as narratives. This could be because narratives leave room for the subjects to add in their own details and make the whole memory their own, while photographs don’t leave much to the imagination.

Another experiment undertaken by researchers to see whether true photographs could also boost the formation of false memories was undertaken. While showing half of the test subjects their real class photo, three stories were related to them about their school life, two of which were true and one about putting slime in the teacher’s desk was doctored. The other half only got the narrative. 70% of the test subjects who got both the photograph and the narrative developed mental images of the incident, while less than half of the other subjects did. Thus, it was found that even true photos can lead to false memories.

It was also found that news articles accompanied by pictures are easier to remember for people. This shows that the news article could be considered more credible and hence, more memorable when accompanied by a photograph.

By using an after and before photo accompanied by an article about a hurricane that hit a town, some researchers even proved that the photographs could effect how the people remembered the news. They gave half the test subjects the article with a before picture of the town and the other half got the article with an after picture depicting the property damage. Then while giving them a set of statements in relation to the article, some of which were true while the others weren’t, a statement related to serious injuries was added which had not been cited originally. 10% of the subjects wo received the before photo remembered something about the injuries while 33% of the ones who saw the after photo remembered.

To conclude, we have found that both true and false photos can inspire false memories while true photos can lead to false memories for the news. Theoretically, this could be used in the psychological field in many ways. It could help doctors treat patients with PTSD, patients who are suffering from the memory of a traumatic past by showing them doctored videos/ photographs and making them believe that a certain memory does not exist and replacing it with false memory. It could also be used as motivation to treat children with speech disorders and other unwelcome behaviors.



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