Memories are deceiving

In 1974, Elizabeth Loftus at the University of Washington conducted a study in which people watched films of car crashes. She then asked the participants to estimate how afst the cares were going, but she divided the people into groups and asked the question differently for each. These were the questions.

About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?

About how fast were the cars going when they collided into each other?

About how fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?

About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?

About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?

The people’s answers in miles per hour averaged like this:

Smashed – 40.8

Collided – 39.3

Bumped – 38.1

Hit – 34.0

Contacted – 31.8

Just by changing the wording, the memories of the subjects were altered. The car crashes were replayed in the participants minds, but this time the word “smashed” necessitate the new version of the memory include care that were going fast enough to validate the adjective. Loftus raised the ante by asking the same people if they remembered the broken glass in the film. There was no broken glass, but sure enough the people who were given the word “smashed” in their question were twice as likely to remember seeing it.

Since then, hundreds of experiments into the misinformation effect have been conducted, and people have been convinced of all sorts of things. Screwdrivers become wrenches, white men become black men and experiences involving other people get traded back and forth.

Memory is imperfect, but also constantly changing. Not only do you filter your past through your present, but your memory is easily infect by social contagion. You incorporate the memories of others into your own head all the time. Studies suggest your memory is permeable, malleable, and evolving. It isn’t fixed and permanent, but more like a dream that pulls information about what you are thinking about during the day and adds new details to the narrative.

David McRaney, You are Not so Smart