False Visual Memories

People can be easily misled into thinking they've seen things that were never really there

Psychology Today/November 10, 2003
By Erik Strand

Don't believe everything you see--or remember having seen. New research suggests that people can be easily misled into thinking they've seen things that were never really there.

Participants in a study at Ohio State University viewed sets of 12 slides depicting geometric figures of various shapes and colors. Following each set of slides, researchers showed each subject five test slides, including two which were part of the original set, two which were obviously not and one 'critical lure' that was strongly related to slides in the first set but did not actually appear there.

Subjects correctly identified test slides that had been among the original 12 figures with about 80 percent accuracy. They also accurately picked out shapes that were clearly not in the previous group. But nearly 60 percent of the time they also believed they had seen the "lure" image in the original set--often reporting that they had "definitely" seen the slide--though in reality they were seeing it for the first time.

"A lot of us use the context of a situation, or the 'gist' of what we've seen, when we are trying to remember things," explains lead researcher David Beversdorf. "While using context helps us to remember things, it can also throw us off."

Beversdorf intends to apply his results and his research paradigm to studies of autistic adults. Because autistic people are less aware of contextual clues, they are actually able to outperform normal subjects on verbal false-memory tests. "We want to see if this is found in spatial false memories as well," says Beversdorf.

He presented his findings at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans.

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