In Brief

The more people associate a memory with emotional and contextual details, like how they felt or what they were wearing, the more likely they are to believe that the memory actually occurred-even if it was imagined, said Yale University psychology professor Marcia Johnson, PhD, following the presentation of her 2006 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award presentation at APA's 2006 Annual Convention.

"Memories derived from perception tend to have more perceptual details than memories derived from imagination, but the distributions tend to overlap," she warned, noting her research finding-published in a 2006 article in Memory (Vol. 14, No. 2, pages 197-213)-that people can also construct false memories by importing details from similar real events.

In an upcoming study in the November American Psychologist, she found that people counteract their mind's ability to develop false memories by monitoring their memories' veracity. To do so, they use heuristics to gauge the plausibility of the event, as well as whether the perceptual details are logical.

But the system has flaws. When people have a vested interest in a certain conclusion, they may set low criteria for evaluating whether an event actually occurred. They may even skip the monitoring process altogether. For example, a person who believes they spoke with their friend Anthony at a dinner party may fail to wonder, "How could Anthony be at a dinner party the same night that he was in the hospital?" because they are positive that they had a discussion and are eager to pass along gossip about what he said, said Johnson.

Moreover, people can unconsciously create contextual and emotional details after being probed about their memories by friends, therapists or others. The finding, which she examined in a 1998 article in Trends in Cognitive Science (Vol. 2, No. 4, pages 137-145) carries serious implications when those details contribute to allegations of childhood abuse, she said.

"Remembering takes place in a social-cultural context that influences how much remembering we do, what kinds of things we try to remember, what we take as evidence and the criterion that we use," she said.

--Z. Stambor