Memory Misattribution: How to Overcome and Use False Memory to Your Advantage

Your memory is a fickle construct that can work either for or against you. Your mind takes a lot of shortcuts to save energy. But one vital shortcut leads to memory misattribution. This effect pushes people to incorrectly connect and create sources of memory.

It’s a powerful mental bias and bringing attention to it can help reduce its negative impact. Taking it one step further, you can adjust other peoples’ memories to your advantage.

Memory Misattribution Brain
Source: Pixabay

Example of False Memory and Misattribution Effect

The good old days… You remember and yearn for those times. But were those times as good as you remember?

Your memories are often a far cry from reality or completely reconstructed. At an early age this proves especially true.

Your ability to recall memories before the age of four is rare. Closer to the age of 10 your memories start to crystallize. Anything before that is shaped from more recent experiences, photos, and other peoples’ stories…

Growing up I was an avid tree climber. So I often tell a tree-climbing story from when I was three. I “remember” escaping outside and scaling up an apple tree. My mom thought I was still in bed but saw me out the window.

She rushed outside to rescue me. After that day, my parents installed locks on the doors that I couldn’t reach.

My mom loves to share this story. I’ve heard it multiple times. And now I recite it as my own… but with my knowledge of false memory, I know it’s not a direct memory. It’s reconstructed from her memory and more recent tree climbing experiences.

Now reconstructed memories aren’t unique to your early years. Your memory is always at risk… but keeping it in the forefront of your mind can reduce memory misattribution. It’s also good to be aware that false memory is common with traumatic events…

Eyewitness Testimony: False Memory Puts the Wrong People in Jail

Folks that witness crimes have given false testimony unknowingly. And based on these witnesses, the cops throw the wrong people in prisons for decades.

The majority of the time the witness is correct… but let’s look at how easy it is for false memories to form.

In 1984 a man broke into a college student’s apartment. It turned into a rape case and she was determined to identify the man if she survived. She studied the man’s face and took in every detail possible… and luckily, she escaped.

A few days later, the police called her in to look at a photo lineup. She carefully chose a 22-year old man, Ronald Cotton. In the following days the police organized a real lineup. Ronald Cotton along with other suspects stepped forward, spoke and then stepped back. She again identified Ronald Cotton.

After this lineup, she learned it was the same person she selected from the photo lineup. This reinforced her decision and memory. She then went on to testify against him not once… but twice. The second time the true criminal even boasted to others that he committed the crime. But her memory wouldn’t allow it due to misattribution and other mental biases at work.

A DNA test finally proved Ronald Cotton an innocent man. False memories kept him locked up for over 10 years. But he forgave the victim, Jennifer Thompson, and they both now support eyewitness testimony reform.

Each time you hear or tell a story, new details can take root. Your memory takes a new form. So be cautious. False memories are around every corner and can have a huge impact.

Now not all false memories are bad. I think I’ll leave some intact. I have many fond memories about drinking with college buddies that get better each time I hear them.

Suggestibility Bias and Conclusion

You can influence other peoples’ memory with the suggestibility bias. Suggestibility shows that our memories are influenced and distorted from external sources. We store the distorted memory and can repeat the process to reinforce and build incorrect beliefs further.

To improve the effect of your suggestions to other people, control your emotions. Get your foot in the door with psychology tricks like the Benjamin Franklin Effect. Make sure there’s a grain of truth and build off it. Take time to reinforce and build up your suggestions.

Memory misattribution can be a powerful tool to influence other people… but always remember its potential negative impacts. Our bodies and brains work in set ways. Learning how your mind works can improve your life in many ways.

Invest mindfully,

Brian Kehm

P.S. Interested in more psychology tips and tricks? Your mind is powerful and here’s a simple trick that you can use to live a happier life… Fake Smile Psychology

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