An Overview Of False Memory & What Causes It

By Nadia Khan|Updated April 7, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

Memories are inherent parts of being human. Without the ability to recall various events and occurrences, human beings would not be able to function in the highest capacities. However, memories are more complex entities that some people would like to believe.

One of the most problematic forms of memory comes in the form of false memories. Thus far, false memory is clinically defined as "a psychological phenomenon where a person recalls something that did not happen." There are a variety of causes and situations which lead to false memories; nevertheless, false recollections can be extremely dangerous and traumatic to the individual who experiences them, especially if he or she is unaware of the fallacy of their memory.

Understanding False Memory

Placing great stock and value in one's memory is only human nature. When most people hear the term "false memory," they are immediately reminded of some kind of mental ailment or disorder. While false memories can sometimes be symptoms of the ailments above, Psychology Today affirms that there are a series of factors which can engender false recollections.

The popular psychological platform moreover describes memories as "complex," "unreliable," and "subject to change." This does not mean that every memory which one maintains is doctored, false, or unreal. However, false memories can be caused by untrue information or even the mere power of suggestion. Many historical, great minds have opined that if something is repeated frequently enough, most people will begin to believe it, regardless of its truthfulness or fallacy.

In many cases, people are tricked into incurring false memories by mere convincing. However, learning and understanding the realities of false memories and humanity's vulnerabilities to them leaves the obvious question….

What prompts people to believe false, doctored, or otherwise inaccurate information?

Why Do People Believe False Information?

The reality of false memories can be quite alarming, especially to people who value the insight which comes from personal recollections. However, there is a scientific and logical reason to why some people fall victim to false memories. Understanding what prompts people to believe and absorb doctored information is arguably one of the best steps to take against false memories.

Put simply; various individuals tend to internalize false information because doing so is often easier than taking the time to evaluate and assess what they're being told. Therefore, the human brain routinely defaults to the newly processed false information, instead of taking time to dig deeper and unearth the truth. The preceding intel comes from a Northwestern University study.

Related and additional reports from Psychology Today moreover affirm that one's susceptibility to doctored information (and by extension, false memories) increases when the untrue assertions are combined with accurate information. In society, these are often referred to as 'half-truths,' but in actuality, something is either accurate or inaccurate. From an objective standpoint, there are truths and falsehoods.

Working Against False Information And False Memories

However, there are some effective steps which can be taken to combat falsehoods and untrue memories. First and foremost comes immediate and critical evaluation of what is being told. False memories often take time to marinate and internalize within the human mind. However, doctored information can be combated by first and foremost considering the source.

Sometimes false information is intentionally shared by certain people or organizations who have ill intentions or ulterior motives. If the source of information is untrustworthy, or otherwise suspicious, taking them at their word may not be the most strategic move. Nine times out of ten, if a new thought or suggestion does not instinctively feel right, it likely isn't. A discerning mind is one of the most powerful weapons of all against inaccurate information and false memories.

Another productive manner of working against false information and false memories is simply by asking questions of the source. If something does not sound right or appears suspicious, questioning can be a great way to pick apart the source and determine whether or not they are spreading faulty information or half-truths.

Additional Causes Of False Memories

Despite fairly popular belief, false memories are not always engendered by external sources or individuals. According to Scholarpedia, the human mind can inaccurately perceive or interpret something they witness and therefore create a false memory. Unfortunately, these type of false memories can be quite common when someone happens to witness a crime. For instance, an individual may genuinely believe that they saw a specific person committing wrongdoing; however, various factors (such as distance, darkness, briefness, quickness, mistaken identity, etc.) can easily lead to the creation of false memory, despite how well-intentioned the individual may be. This is why children who have been abused or assaulted are often referred to a forensic therapist who is trained to ask non-leading questions for their initial evaluation.

Are Certain People More Vulnerable To False Memory Than Others?

The phenomenon of false memories and untrue recollections is a subject of intrigue for many scientists and specialists. Therefore, it begs to question…are certain individuals more vulnerable or susceptible to false memory, whether from outside sources or their minds? Well, according to Futurity, the answer is yes.

Based on the findings of Futurity, older adults are ones who are most vulnerable to false memories. As people age and go through life, their brains change in various ways. One of the strongest commonalities among older people is their reliance on schematic memories. As the name suggests, schematic memories place a greater emphasis on the substance or essence of an event, instead of the specific details.

This can be especially problematic. As the old saying goes, the devil is in the detail. While there are certain occasions where the mere essence is of greatest importance, more often than not, an acute awareness of details can determine the difference between an accurate memory or a false memory.

As various individuals get older, they are encouraged to partake in activities which exercise the mind and keep it intact. Joining classes, doing crossword puzzles, or simply getting out of the house on a regular basis can make a tremendous difference in one's life and on their mental state. Moreover, it can prevent a plethora of brain-related ailments and disorders.

Therapy And False Memory

As the complexities of false memories become mainstream, more and more people have begun to question the relationship between therapy and false memories. Certain individuals believe that therapy can be a great combatant against false memories or the recovery of true recollections. However, other people have concerns with certain associations between therapy and false memories.

Here at BetterHelp, we pride ourselves on offering the best quality of care to those who come to us. Regardless of who you are or what you may have experienced, BetterHelp's ultimate priority is ensuring that our therapists and psychologists guide each on the path to living their best and most fulfilled life. If you or a loved one are going through something, or simply need someone to talk to, feel free to contact BetterHelp at any time by clicking here.

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