False Memory Experiment


How accurate IS human memory? Can we count on memory to recall text material when we write a test? Can we count on memory to accurately identify a perpetrator if we witness a crime? A large volume of research in this area has demonstrated that humans are prone to making errors when performing recall and recognition tasks. Unless you have received 100% on every test you have studied hard for, you are probably familiar with the problem! Interestingly, psychologists often find a pattern in the errors that are made in recall and recognition tasks; participants frequently include items that are related in some way to the to-be-remembered material when making their report. For example, participants asked to recall what they saw when sitting in an office may report they saw a desk lamp, even if no lamp was actually present. This pattern is likely the result of the role that cognitive schemas, or networks of knowledge, play in our cognitive life. When recalling a given item closely related items will also be activated and may be falsely reported even when the participant is fully aware that this problem may occur. In the present experiment you will be presented with six word lists and will perform a recognition task. At the end you will see for yourself whether you too will generate 'false memories'.


In the preceding experiment you were shown lists of words followed by a recognition task. Some of the items you had to choose from in the recognition task were from the list you saw, some were random unrelated words, and one was related to the theme of the word list but not actually presented.

Note that a typical participant will not report many items not on the list that were not related to the theme of the original list, but that a large percentage of related items are reported. Reporting related items not on the study list is known as the 'false memory effect'. This effect may occur because the related word was activated when the list was presented, or because it was activated when the test words were presented, or both. The false memory effect is found even when participants are confident that they have not made any errors in their recognition task.

Review Questions

Question: How may the false memory test be related to eye witness testimony?

Answer: The false memory effect indicates that people can make errors in recognition without knowing they have made an error, thus someone could identify a person as a criminal perpetrator because the person seemed familiar to them, but not necessarily because they accurately recall seeing the person committing the crime.

Question: Suppose you had two conditions with two different groups of participants, on list 1 'CAT FIRE JUMP LAMP' were presented and on list 2 'DOG FIRE JUMP LAMP' were presented and the distractor 'MOUSE' along with some words from the list was presented at the time of test. How might performance differ in these two conditions and why?

Answer: It is more likely for participants who saw list 1 to falsely report 'MOUSE' at the time of test because the word 'MOUSE', closely related to the list 1 word 'CAT'. Note that very few random distractors are reported in the typical data, in false memory experiments most of the errors are the inclusions of material related to material learned at test time.

Question: How might false memory be a problem when a student is writing a multiple choice test?

Answer: Questions on multiple choice tests will activate material in a given subject, some of the material will be related to the correct answer and some will not. A student will need to know the material very well to know what activated material contains the correct answer and what activated material is simply related to the correct answer. This phenomenon is one reason why multiple choice questions are so difficult to answer!