Have you ever reminisced about an experience with someone and you both seem to have different recollections of the same event? This is a puzzling phenomenon, and the misinformation effect is one of the components that contribute to the sometimes startling inaccuracy of long-term memory.
Long-Term Memory and the Misinformation Effect
It is commonly believed that people’s long-term memory records events that we experience exactly as they happened, just like a DVR records episodes exactly as they first appeared on television. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, researchers have found that long-term memory is very prone to errors and can easily be altered and molded. The inaccuracy of long-term memory is enhanced by the misinformation effect, which occurs when misleading information is incorporated into one’s memory after an event.So, for example, if an interrogator questions an individual about an event using leading questions, the person’s perception of the event will change to fit the question. In the following sections, you will see examples of just how the misinformation effect works.
Examples of the Misinformation Effect
One of the most prominent researchers on the misinformation effect is Elizabeth Loftus, who has conducted over 200 experiments involving more than 20,000 participants on the subject.
In one classic experiment from 1974, different groups of participants viewed a video of a car accident and then afterwards were questioned about what they had seen in the video.The answers to such questions, however, would vary depending on the way the questions were worded. When asked the question, ‘How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?’ the answer typically involved a higher rate of speed than when the question was phrased, ‘How fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?’Additionally, when the participants were asked a week later to report whether or not there was glass at the scene of the accident, those who had heard the word ‘smashed’ in their initial interview were twice as likely to report broken glass, when in the video there was not any.As you might guess, this finding about long-term memory and the misinformation effect has drawn particular attention to the validity of eyewitness testimony, which is commonly relied upon in criminal cases.
In order to get eyewitness testimony as accurate as possible, attorneys and others are trained to use carefully worded interviews that are neutral and not leading in any way.Another of Loftus’s experiments involving the misinformation effect also involved cars. Participants were asked to view a short video of a white sports car traveling down a country road. Afterwards, the participants were given a questionnaire about the video.
Half the participants were given a question that read, ‘How fast was the white sports car going when it passed the barn while traveling along the country road?’ The other half were given a question that read, ‘How fast was the white sports car going while traveling along the country road?’ One week later, all the participants came back and were asked whether a barn was featured in the video. Those whose questionnaire included a question about the barn were more likely to report that there had been a barn in the video, despite the fact that there was not one present.Although the research of Elizabeth Loftus is the most well known in the area of the misinformation effect, there have also been a few other experiments that successfully demonstrate it. One of these was an experiment in which participants were asked to view a picture of a man’s face. Half the participants were asked a question about the ‘mustached man,’ while the other half did not get exposed to the mustache detail. Those who saw the phrase ‘mustached man’ were more likely to wrongly recall a mustache on the face of the clean-shaven man that was originally shown.
Similarly, participants wrongly concluded that they saw eggs in a scene when given such a suggestion, rather than cereal, which is what was actually there.
It has been observed in various psychological studies that long-term memory is very inaccurate. One of the contributing factors to this is the misinformation effect, which refers to the incorporation of misleading information into one’s memory after the event. The most famous researcher involved with the misinformation effect is Elizabeth Loftus, whose studies reveal how people can recall wrong information about an event witnessed if given a suggestion that leads them to do so.
This finding about memory draws particular attention to the validity of eyewitness testimony, which is very commonly relied upon in criminal cases. In order to get eyewitness testimony as accurate as possible, attorneys and others educated in law are trained to use carefully worded interviews that are neutral and not leading in any way.
At the end of the video, you should be able to do the following:
- Explain what the misinformation effect is and how it may affect long-term memory
- Recall examples of the misinformation effect from Elizabeth Loftus’s studies and other experiments