Reconstructed memory

Reconstructed memory is an example of manipulation and improvement of memory.

How do we know that our memories are accurate? In reality, we don’t. Often, our memories are malleable, and change over time. Perhaps you have experienced the sensation of being adamant that a particular event had occurred, only for your friends to tell you otherwise. Or, maybe you believe you remember the event seen in a photograph, even though it was before you were born. This is reconstructed memory.

Misleading questions: Elizabeth Loftus

The work of Elizabeth Loftus has been highly influential in understanding the effect of language on memory. Her studies found that the more we encourage people to remember things, the more likely they are to do so, even if that memory never existed in the first place!

Possibly her most well-known work was conducted in 1974 with John Palmer. In this study, participants were shown footage of a car accident. Following the footage, the experimenters divided the participants into groups and asked them similar, albeit crucially different questions. They marginally varied their questions, ranging from “how fast were the cars travelling when they contacted” to “how fast were the cars travelling when they smashed?” Contacted and smashed, along with other leading words such as collided, hit, bumped and crashed, all have different connotations. The groups exposed to the more extreme words such as smashed and crashed tended to estimate a faster speed than those exposed to less vigorous words such as collided and contacted.

In later studies, some participants were asked questions after stimuli in the scene which wasn’t actually there. These same participants were more likely to report afterward that they had scene these stimuli in the initial footage. This exemplifies the misinformation effect.