Have you heard people ‘remember’ things about the COVID-19 crisis that you know can’t be right? Or maybe you have a friend who keeps merging memories of social distancing guidelines? Are you struggling to remember whether that breaking news that just popped into your mind was about the UK, the US, or maybe even Italy? Are you sure that your friend’s memories of his symptoms back in January (which he now describes as early-onset COVID-19) are exaggerated?
If you feel like we are all losing it, and our memories are going rogue, you are not alone.
Do false memories look real?
Research has repeatedly shown that false memories can feel incredibly real and can be multi-sensory: In some, we can hear, feel, or see things, just like in real memories. Indeed, to be considered a false memory it can’t be a lie, it needs to be part of our reality. I write about this at length in my book, The Memory Illusion.
But this week new research takes this even further, and shows that false memories also look real to other people.
My article Do false memories look real? was published this week in Frontiers in Psychology1. In it, I present research I conducted involving two studies and over 200 participants. Read the full open-access article here.
I found that if someone has a false memory, we probably can’t tell just by looking at the memory. What may be more surprising is that people also seem to be no better than chance at identifying true memories.
Participants watched a video of a person recounting a true emotional memory, and the same person recount a false memory. They were told “All, some, or none of the videos you are about to watch involve memories of real accounts. Your task is to identify after each video whether you think the account described actually happened or not.”.
The videos were filmed during a study I conducted previously, which involved implanting complex false memories2. The false memories in the videos either involved committing a crime (assault, or assault with a weapon) or other highly emotional events (animal attack, or losing a large sum of money).
In both studies, participants were no better than chance at spotting whether a memory was true or false. Some participants were also just given an audio version (rather than a video) of the memory. In this situation participants were worse than chance. It seems people were actively relying on bad cues when listening to the memories, and somehow these cues made them worse than had they tossed a coin. (If you want to know more, here’s a great write-up by science writer Ed Cara.)
How this pandemic is giving you false memories
What this means is that if you already have false memories of what you have done, heard, or seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, you probably can’t spot them. Both your memory of the news, and your memories of emotional events that are happening in your life are possibly being changed or contaminated.
A few things make us more susceptible to false memories right now:
- Source confusion. What we learn from multiple sources about the same topic can very quickly become confused. This can lead to creating false memories based on source confusion, which is when we misattribute where you learned something. For example, in reality it was your weird uncle who said that thing, but your brain may incorrectly be sure it was the BBC. That’s a small false memory, but at a time like this, it can have profound effects. Especially when that thing is a dangerous misconception.
- Fake news. Some of the content we see online will be false or misleading. Reading headlines or posts in a rush, we may not realise that a story is from an unreliable source. Fake news is often specifically created to be memorable, and to influence our thoughts and behaviour. According to research, people are “most susceptible to forming false memories for fake news that aligns with their beliefs” (3).
- Co-witness contamination. We are all witnesses of this world event, witnesses who are talking to each other all the time. If the COVID-19 pandemic were a crime scene, this would be really bad news. Witnesses can influence one another, and their memories tend to blend – these are called co-witness effects. As found repeatedly in research, “Witnesses who discuss an event with others often incorporate misinformation encountered during the discussion into their memory of the event” (4).
- Sameness. Every day we hear unprecedented news or horrific medical stories. But after weeks or months of the same type of information, with a reduction in the amount of new and exciting things happening elsewhere, it gets difficult to separate this long stream of information into meaningful bits. Brains aren’t made for sameness; they want separation and novelty. This means that whether it’s another “how are you” conversation, another statistic, or another day at home…our memories are blending. This makes it easy to get memories mixed up, even important ones.
This is just a taste of how your memories are likely already becoming distorted by this new reality. So, how do you prevent it?
Preventing False Memories
During these unusual times you may want to consider implementing additional safeguards to keep your memories safe.
If you want reliable memories of this highly emotional time you need to keep a journal. Assume that those feelings, ideas, fears, beliefs, and experiences will be forgotten. People are generally bad at remembering these details later on. You may already be underestimating how worried you were when this started, how under-prepared, or how defiant.
Even what you stockpiled will be forgotten. All those things you are learning about disaster preparedness you may well forget or misremember later on. Make a list now of things that you are learning — things you will want to have in your house, things you will want to know. That way, if there is a second wave of outbreaks and you are back in lockdown in the future, or there’s another pandemic, you have something other than your unreliable memory to rely on.
Too late? Already think you or someone else has false memories? Look for independent evidence. You can check the news to see when you actually went into lockdown, or whether you tweeted something about how you felt, or maybe ask a friend what you said to them. That can help establish whether you have a false memory or not.
Prevention and evidence are what you need, because it’s likely that once you have a false memory, neither you nor anyone else will be able to spot it.
1. Shaw, J. (2020). Do False Memories Look Real? Evidence that People Struggle to Identify Rich False Memories of Committing Crime and Other Emotional Events. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 650. Direct Link: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00650/full
2. Shaw, J., & Porter, S. (2015). Constructing rich false memories of committing crime. Psychological Science, 26(3), 291-301. Free full article on my website: https://www.drjuliashaw.com/research
3. Murphy, G., Loftus, E. F., Grady, R. H., Levine, L. J., & Greene, C. M. (2019). False Memories for Fake News During Ireland’s Abortion Referendum. Psychological science, 30(10), 1449-1459.
4. Paterson, H. M., Kemp, R. I., & Ng, J. R. (2011). Combating Co‐witness contamination: Attempting to decrease the negative effects of discussion on eyewitness memory. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(1), 43-52.