An Overview Of False Memory: What Is It, And What Causes It?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated April 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In general, false memories are memories a person holds that are inaccurate or did not actually happen. Although we generally tend to trust our memories, it can be common to have false memories. For example, hearing incorrect information repeatedly can result in a false memory. Inaccurate perceptions or interpretations of situations can also contribute to false memories. Older people may be especially prone to false recollections. If you’re concerned about your own memories or perceptions, speaking with a licensed therapist may be helpful. You can connect with a mental health professional online or in person.

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Understanding false memory

Memories may be more complex entities than we can fully understand.

A false memory is usually clinically defined as "a psychological phenomenon where a person recalls something that did not happen."

There may be a variety of causes and situations that can lead to false memories. These false recollections can be dangerous and traumatic to the individual who experiences them, especially if they are unaware that the memories are not real.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

It can be natural to trust our memories. When most people hear the term "false memory," they may think that it comes along with a mental illness, or they may believe that it’s an uncommon or isolated occurrence.

However, false memories can be considered quite common because memory can be complex and unreliable.

This does not necessarily mean that every memory you have may be doctored, false, or unreal. However, false memories can sometimes be caused by untrue information and the power of suggestion. Sometimes, even just by hearing something repeatedly, people can begin to believe it, regardless of its validity. People can be tricked into developing false memories in some situations.

Why do people believe false information?

Various individuals may 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 often routinely defaults to the newly processed false information instead of taking time to dig deeper and unearth the truth. One’s susceptibility to doctored information (and, by extension, false memories) may increase when untrue assertions are combined with accurate information. In society, these are often referred to as “half-truths,” but in general, something is either accurate or inaccurate, rather than somewhere in between.

Working against false information and false memories

There may be some effective steps to combat falsehoods and untrue memories. First, we should generally engage with immediate and critical evaluation of what is being told. False memories may take time to marinate and internalize within the human mind. However, doctored information can be combated by considering the source.

If the source of information is untrustworthy or otherwise suspicious, taking this source at its word may not be the most strategic move. A discerning mind can be one of the most powerful weapons against inaccurate information and false memories.

Another productive manner of working against false information and false memories may be 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 it may be spreading faulty information.

Additional causes of false memories

False memories are not always engendered by external sources or individuals. In some cases, the human mind can inaccurately perceive or interpret something it witnesses and therefore create a false memory. 

These types 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 the wrongdoing. However, various factors (such as distance, darkness, briefness, quickness, mistaken identity, etc.) can easily lead to the creation of a false memory, despite how well-intentioned the individual may be. 

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Are certain people more vulnerable to false memory than others?

The phenomenon of false memories and untrue recollections can be a subject of intrigue for many scientists and specialists. Therefore, it can beg the question of whether certain individuals may be more vulnerable or susceptible to false memory, whether from outside sources or their own minds. According to this study, the answer may be yes.

Older adults may be the most vulnerable to false memories. As people age, their brains may change in various ways. One of the strongest commonalities among older people may be their reliance on schematic memories. As the name suggests, schematic memories tend to place a greater emphasis on the substance or essence of an event, instead of the specific details.

This can be problematic in some situations. While there can be certain occasions in which the mere essence is of greatest importance, it’s often an acute awareness of details that can determine the difference between an accurate memory and a false one.

As individuals get older, they may be encouraged to partake in activities that exercise the mind. Joining various 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 mental state. Moreover, it can help to prevent a plethora of brain-related ailments and disorders.

Therapy to address false memories

Therapy can be a great combatant against false memories, and it may also aid in the recovery of true recollections. 

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Are you questioning your memories and perspective?

Sometimes, it can be challenging or uncomfortable to meet with a therapist in person for sessions. However, online therapy can be an excellent alternative to in-office therapy. It can empower you to get the professional help and guidance you deserve from the comfort and safety of your home, without having to worry about transportation or sitting in a crowded waiting room.

Studies have demonstrated that online therapy can be as effective as traditional, in-person therapy. Surveys have also shown that many people feel more comfortable expressing things via an online video call than they would face-to-face. Whether you prefer to connect with a therapist online or in person, you may rest assured that you’ll receive the qualified, professional help you deserve.

Takeaway

Often, when we experience a memory, what we are seeing in our mind’s eye is not a replay, but rather a recreation. That can mean that false memories, or memories that are inaccurate or did not happen, may not be an anomaly but can instead be common. An understanding of this commonality should generally lead us to be a bit more wary of our memories and their accuracy. It should also lead us to routinely question what we are told by others, even if it is presented as fact. If you’ve been questioning your perspective or your memories, talking about your concerns with a licensed therapist can be beneficial. An online therapy platform can make it easy to connect with a mental health professional.
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