[Two Weeks Ago]
Wife: Hey, honey, let’s go to this restaurant here and celebrate our 10th Anniversary, shall we? I heard people saying that it’s great!
Husband: [Exerting all energy to catch the Legendary Pokémon, Palkia] Oh, ok, my supervisor hasn’t asked me to play golf with him yet. Should be alright.
Wife: Yeah! So excited! I can’t wait! Remember to make the reservation!
Husband: Yeah, finally! Yah, I’ll make the call.
[Two Weeks Later]
Wife: Hi, I have a reservation for two at 7pm.
Waiter: What is the reservation number, please?
Waiter: Hm…are you sure this is the number used, ‘cause I can’t seem to find it anywhere.
Wife: [Turning around to her husband] Hey, what’s the number used? The waiter said she couldn’t find the record.
Husband: How am I supposed to know? You made the reservation, didn’t you?
Wife: No, I didn’t! You said you were gonna help make the reservation!
Husband: No, I did not! You said you were going to make the reservation!
Are you familiar with the quarrel above? According to a report by the CommonWealth Magazine (2018), one of the reasons couples fight over one another results from being overly confident about their memory (Tseng, 2018). That is, similar to the husband in the previous dialogue, he blamed his wife for her wrong memory while he was actually the one that forgot about his promise. Relationship conflicts triggered by false memories might be a minor issue, but having someone thrown into jail for it might not. A study (Albright, 2017) shows that over 75% of times among appeals for convicted crimes were overthrown and the suspect later proven to be innocent (Albright, 2017, p. 7758).
Have you ever been curious about the reliability of humans’ ability to memorize? In today’s article, I will be sharing with you a research about fabricating false memories through the imagination of shoelaces.
Two memory psychologists at the University of Washington—Ayanna K. Thomas and Elizabeth F. Loftus—invited 210 UW undergraduates to participate in an interesting psychological experiment in 2002. The research comes in three stages: (1) encoding realities (2) imagining events (3) testing results. To start out, Thomas and Loftus (2002) designed 54 action statements, which in part derived from a former study by Goff and Roediger (1998). Among the 54 action statements, 27 of them are familiar behaviors and 27 others are bizarre behaviors (Thomas & Loftus, 2002, p. 425).
Note: “Familiar Behaviors” here refer to actions that are normal in everyday life, such as flipping a coin or signing one’s name with a pen.
Note: “Bizarre Behaviors” here apply to conducts that are considered weird and not to be done in everyday life, e.g. sharpening the shoelace with a pencil sharpener or hanging a cup on one’s ears
I. Encoding Realities
During the first stage of the experiment, the two researchers randomly assigned their participants into nine different experimental settings—only the sequence for listing the 54 action statements is different among these groups. In front of each test-taker was an array of measurement tools used to perform the tasks (e.g. shoelaces, pencil sharpener). The experimenter in the nine groups would then pick out of the 54 statements 18 actions for the students to veritably perform, 18 statements to simply imagine with, and 18 statements to leave behind (Thomas & Loftus, 2002, p.425). The participants in each group may differ in terms of the actions they perform and imagine so as to cross-examine the effects of doing and imagining. Each task lasts 15 seconds (p.425).
II. Imagining Events
After undergoing 36 forms of tasks, the college participants can now finally take a short break for 24 hours before they were sent back to the laboratory. During the second phase of experiment, this group of undergraduates received the same 54 action instructions, but this time without actually performing the 18 conducts. Rather, they were asked to imagine the assigned actions for 7 seconds each. So, the “sharpening the shoelace with the pencil sharpener” action was definitely brought up again. Each participant then imagined 108 times of various action events (Thomas & Loftus, 2002, p.425-426).
III. Testing Results
We have finally come to the last stage of the experiment, i.e. testing the conditioned effects! In order to find out how clearly each person memorize the different events, Thomas and Loftus separated the memories into remember and know with which they ask the students to rate the action statements such as the “sharpening the shoelace with the pencil sharpener” one two weeks after the first and second stages of experiment (Thomas & Loftus, 2002, p. 426).
What do you think the results were? Much to the researchers’ surprise, it is discovered that once people are asked to imagine a particular task for over 5 times, the possibility that they believe they have actively done it goes up by 14%, even for unusual behaviors (such as sharpening the shoelace with the pencil sharpener). Thomas and Loftus speculate that this is due to the attribution system of our brains. To elaborate, our brain unconsciously stores symbols or messages related to an event and immediately triggers the memory once the signal for the particular event arises, making us believe that we have truly experience it (p. 429).
Having read this research on the tricks of human imagination, I hope you have also come to the realization that perhaps we are not always right in our memories. Next time when we are about to start off a fight with our family or friends over our memories, maybe it’s smarter for us to simply calm down and relax. We might just be the one with false memories and real imaginations. Even if we had all the rights to be right, I guess it doesn’t cost a penny to say sorry.
- Tseng, T. W. (December 26, 2018). Overly confident about your memory? Five common mistakes among quarreling couples. CommonWealth Magazine. Retrieved from https://reurl.cc/yyXXVE
- Albright, T. D. (2017). Why eyewitnesses fail. PNAS, 114, 7758-7764. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5544328/pdf/pnas.201706891.pdf
- Thomas, A. K. & Loftus, E. F. (2002). Creating bizarre false memories through imagination. Memory & Cognition, 30, 423-431. doi: 10.3758/bf03194942