[Link] False memories of fabricated political events

post by gjm · 2013-02-10T22:25:15.535Z · score: 17 (20 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 22 comments

Another one for the memory-is-really-unreliable file. Some researchers at UC Irvine (one of them is Elizabeth Loftus, whose name I've seen attached to other fake-memory studies) asked about 5000 subjects about their recollection of four political events. One of the political events never actually happened. About half the subjects said they remembered the fake event. Subjects were more likely to pseudo-remember events congruent with their political preferences (e.g., Bush or Obama doing something embarrassing).

Link to papers.ssrn.com (paper is freely downloadable).

The subjects were recruited from the readership of Slate, which unsurprisingly means they aren't a very representative sample of the US population (never mind the rest of the world). In particular, about 5% identified as conservative and about 60% as progressive.

Each real event was remembered by 90-98% of subjects. Self-identified conservatives remembered the real events a little less well. Self-identified progressives were much more likely to "remember" a fake event in which G W Bush took a vacation in Texas while Hurricane Katrina was devastating New Orleans. Self-identified conservatives were somewhat more likely to "remember" a fake event in which Barack Obama shook the hand of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

About half of the subjects who "remembered" fake events were unable to identify the fake event correctly when they were told that one of the events in the study was fake.

22 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Athrelon · 2013-02-10T22:59:20.705Z · score: 44 (48 votes) · LW · GW

I seem to remember a study demonstrating that my political opponents are particularly vulnerable to this bias.

comment by Jack · 2013-02-11T17:00:18.249Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Actually, if you sample enough studies...

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-02-11T16:19:06.954Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I have to wonder to what extent people are being made to remember events that never happened, and to what extent they're faking a familiarity with events they don't really recall at all, because the idea that the interviewers would simply make up the events doesn't occur to them, and they think that it would be embarrassing to admit unawareness of a real, politically relevant event.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-02-11T23:26:14.698Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

If that's the case they should be better at identifying the fake event after they were told that one is fake.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-02-12T00:59:01.580Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

For a bit, I thought that this seemed to set a floor on the number of respondents who must really be producing memories of the fake event (although significantly more people who claimed to remember the fake event picked it out as fake than would be predicted by chance if they had no way of distinguishing between them,) but it occurs to me that if the respondents were lying about remembering multiple events in the survey, then it doesn't seem that the survey would be able to distinguish between respondents who picked the wrong event as fake because they had produced memories of it as vivid as of the others, and respondents who picked the wrong event as fake because there were multiple events on the survey that they didn't remember, and their attempts to determine which one didn't happen come down to luck.

comment by jimmy · 2013-02-12T19:56:15.633Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It's the former.

There's surprisingly little difference between real memories and imagined ones - namely the belief that it's not just imagined. Apply confirmation bias to that and you have a way of planting false memories.

I sometimes give "false memory placebos" where I use the same techniques to give false memories of having hypnotized them for some effect, which then happens because they expect it to. That wouldn't work if they didn't alieve it was real.

comment by DaFranker · 2013-02-12T20:02:01.610Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There's surprisingly little difference between real memories and imagined ones - namely the belief that it's not just imagined. Apply confirmation bias to that and you have a way of planting false memories.

Corollary:

There's surprisingly little difference between real sensory input and imagined ones - namely the belief that it's not just imagined. Apply confirmation bias to that and you have a way of sending false sensory input.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-02-13T07:23:59.437Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think so. I suspect real sensory input are very different from imagined ones, it's just that most of these differences aren't preserved by the process that turns sensory inputs into memories.

comment by DaFranker · 2013-02-13T15:07:10.787Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Meh. To a conscious mind this makes no difference internally.

I sometimes have to experimentally verify whether a stimuli is real or imagined. Like moving closer to the perceived source of a sound/noise to see if it gets louder or not. If it does, it's real, if it doesn't, then it isn't. As far as I know, this isn't a particularly unique thing that happens only to me.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-02-12T20:47:27.695Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Only about half of the people being surveyed claimed to remember the false events, so clearly the procedure fails to produce false memories in a large proportion of those surveyed. Just because memories can be faked does not necessarily mean that all or even most of those claiming to remember the events have really produced false memories.

Although I have not done so on surveys, I can certainly attest that I've claimed to remember things that I didn't remember at all; most often I've done it to avoid embarrassing other people.

comment by jimmy · 2013-02-13T03:30:56.581Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, it's obviously possible to fail to implant false memories and have them still report that they remember.

I'm not claiming that just asking someone if they remember a fictitious event is enough to reliably implant false memories. I'm also not claiming that the mere existence of false memories under some circumstances means it's definitely all of them in this case.

It's just that in my experience its so easy to do real false memories that I think they're mostly real.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-02-13T04:25:13.448Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That may be the case. But then, people do seem to lie on surveys quite a lot. I'd be interested to see if the results were significantly different if they used some method, such as dice, to minimize the rate of error by dishonesty.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-02-11T15:17:10.872Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Shaking the hand of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad shouldn't be embarrassing. I mean, it's politics. You're allowed to shake hands with Hitler if you think it'll help.

Maybe additional context was provided in the study so that doesn't apply?

Also, a second good comparison would have been to make up fake positive stories... Is it a matter of adopting excess credence for your allies, or being more skeptical of your opponents?

comment by Jack · 2013-02-11T18:24:48.457Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Shaking the hand of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad shouldn't be embarrassing. I mean, it's politics. You're allowed to shake hands with Hitler if you think it'll help.

Maybe additional context was provided in the study so that doesn't apply?

There was a political battle over Obama's (supposed) willingness to meet with Ahmedinejad during the 2008 Presidential race. See this.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-02-11T23:27:28.426Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

There was a political battle over Obama's (supposed) willingness to meet with Ahmedinejad during the 2008 Presidential race

Wait, how many people remember that event (before clicking on the link?).

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-02-12T11:33:30.955Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's insane.

comment by gjm · 2013-02-13T01:25:16.290Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Unlike all the other things politicians have been attacked for?

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-02-11T16:28:00.643Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm speculating here, but my impression is that condemning a politician on the basis of whom they've shook hands with is much more commonly a conservative behavior, and that it may be due to a moral value of purity, such that it's unacceptable for a politician to associate with sufficiently undesirable figures and display anything that might appear to be approval, regardless of whether or not they take actions favoring that figure.

comment by roystgnr · 2013-02-11T23:43:55.193Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Really? The only thing my brain pattern matched to "embarrassing handshake, political" was the Rumsfeld-Hussein handshake. Google for "hussein handshake" for me claims 15+ million hits, and the front page is all Rumsfeld. If you consider politically-charged-body-language in general, I can recall the US right-wing being upset that Obama bowed to foreign leaders and the US left-wing being upset that Bush Jr. held hands with the Saudi crown prince, but I never had the impression that even this broader category of complaint was common from any part of the political spectrum.

Jack's reference is probably more apropos; this fake story might have been chosen specifically to be vaguely reminiscent of a real story.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-02-12T00:40:40.297Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I don't remember the Rumsfeld-Hussein handshake making the rounds, and that apparently was before I mostly stopped paying attention to political news, but my memories of how often this phenomenon occurs may not be representative.

If the hypothesis I proposed in the grandparent were correct regardless, then I imagine the significance behind the Rumsfeld-Hussein picture making the rounds is that the U.S. did back Hussein, so the upset was not that a member of our administration appeared to have associated with a negative figure, but that at one turn we built up a dictator when it seemed politically advantageous, and at another framed him as a monster who was worth taking down even if he didn't pose an active danger.

For all that my own policies tend to lean liberal though, I wouldn't credit the average Democrat with being especially discriminating; it's entirely likely that my above hypothesis is simply wrong.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-02-11T15:15:47.411Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm a lot more interested in how reliable people's memories are when they haven't been prompted to confabulate.

comment by jimmy · 2013-02-12T20:02:46.219Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The thing is that people are prompted to confabulate all the time and it's usually not intentional.

Whenever you ask someone if they remember something, they're prompted to confabulate. Especially when 1) they have weak/no memory of the event, 2) you appear confident and trustworthy, and 3) it appears low status for them to not remember.

This can happen even when the event is real and you can honestly expect them to remember - that's actually quite ideal. You have to be really careful with your language if you want to avoid it.