From Our 2011 Archives

Memories Can Be Unreliable, Manipulated

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 3 (HealthDay News) -- Many Americans believe memory is more powerful, reliable and objective than it actually is, a new survey finds.

The telephone poll of 1,500 people found that nearly two-thirds considered human memory to be like a video camera that records detailed information for later review, according to the researchers.

Almost half of the participants believed that once experiences are stored as memory, those memories do not change, and nearly 40% said the testimony of single confident eyewitness should be sufficient to convict someone of a crime.

But the researchers said these and other beliefs about memory aren't supported by research, which shows that memory can be unreliable and even manipulated. For example, even witnesses who are confident about what they've seen are wrong about 30% of the time.

"The fallibility of memory is well established in the scientific literature, but mistaken intuitions about memory persist," study co-leader Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., said in a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign news release. "The extent of these misbeliefs helps explain why so many people assume that politicians who may simply be remembering things wrong must be deliberately lying."

These findings have important implications in a number of areas, including legal cases.

"Our memories can change even if we don't realize they have changed," study co-leader Daniel Simons, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, said in the news release. "That means that if a defendant can't remember something, a jury might assume the person is lying. And misremembering one detail can impugn their credibility for other testimony, when it might just reflect the normal fallibility of memory."

The study appears in the journal PLoS One.

-- Robert Preidt

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SOURCE: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, news release, Aug. 3, 2011