Formation Of False Memories

Elizabeth Loftus And Jacqueline Pickrell’s Study Of False Memories (1995)


If your mother began telling you about that one time when you were five-years-old and you painted the rooms of your walls with lipstick and strawberry yoghurt, you might roll your eyes or laugh it off. What if your mother began describing little details of this incident? Maybe it would trigger the memory and you’d think, Oh wow, I really did do that, dammit, why was I such a weirdo?! Then your mother might laugh and say, Haha, dumbo, fooled ya! and you’d be like, Oh.

The reason behind this long and confusing possible incident is the idea of memory failing us. Experimental psychologists are really interested in finding out why, how and to what extent our memory may fail us. They also spend a lot of time experimenting in the wonderful world of false memories.

Elizabeth Loftus and Jacqueline Pickrell conducted a study into the creation of false memories.

Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist, specialises in human memory

Before we delve into the study, make sure you understand the following terms:

Proactive interference – The phenomenon of our memories being disturbed by the things we experienced before that incident.

Retroactive interference – The phenomenon of our memories being disturbed by the things we experienced after that incident.


The sample was made up of 21 females and three males, aged 18 to 53. They were recruited by students at the University of Washington; each student brought in a pair of people. One person was the subject and was younger in age, while the other person was a close relative of the subject. The pairs were usually siblings or parents and children.


The researcher interviewed the relative (i.e. parent or older sibling) of each participant and obtained three events that the participant experienced when they were four to six years old. These events were not too easy or traumatic to remember. The relative then gave information about a possible shopping trip to a mall or department store to help create a false story about the participant getting lost as a child. The relative gave the following information:

  • Where the family of the participant shopped when they were about five years old
  • Which family members usually went along on shopping trips
  • What kind of stores would have interested the participant as a child
  • Verification that the participant had not gotten lost in any mall when they were five

The false event (which was created with the help of the first three points above) always included the following five elements:

  • Participant was lost for an extended time period
  • They cried when they were lost
  • They got lost in a mall or large department store
  • They were found and helped by an elderly woman
  • They were finally reunited with their family

The participants were told that the study was about childhood memories and that the researchers were interested in how and why some people remembered certain things while others did not. They completed booklets that had been posted to their homes.

The five-page booklet had a cover letter with instructions as well as an interview schedule. Inside the booklet, there were four short stories about the participant’s childhood (provided by the relative). The participant, however, was not told that ONE of the stories was a false event (about getting lost in a mall). Each event was described in a single paragraph at the top of the page; the rest of the page was blank so that the participant could record their own details of each memory. If they did not remember an event, they were told to write “I do not remember this”.

After completing the booklet, they posted it back to the researchers. When the booklets were received, each participant was scheduled for two interviews – usually at the university but sometimes over the phone. The first interview was about 1-2 weeks after receiving the booklet and the second was about 1-2 weeks after this. Two female interviewers conducted and recorded both interview sessions.

The first interview: Participants were first reminded about each event very briefly (the interview read small bits of the memories aloud as retrieval cues) and asked to recall as much as they could about each memory, whether or not it was already written in the booklet. After recalling, the researcher asked them to rate the following:

  • The clarity of their memory (i.e. how clearly they remembered the event) on a scale of 1 (not clear at all) to 10 (extremely clear).
  • Their confidence that they would be able to remember more details about the event if they were given more time on a scale of 1 (not confident) to 5 (extremely confident).

After the first interview, participants were thanked for their time and encouraged to think about the four events; the researcher asked them to remember more details for the next interview, but to not discuss the events with anyone else.

The second interview: This was basically the same as the first interview. Participants tried to remember the events and then rated their clarity and confidence. The only difference is that the participants were debriefed at the end.

Debriefing involved the researchers explaining why they created a false memory and then the participant was asked to guess which memory may be fake. The researchers apologised for the deception and explained why it was necessary.


The results of this study can be summarised as:

  • 68% of true memories were remembered in total.
  • In the booklet, 7 out of 24 participants said they remembered the false event (some fully, some partially).
  • In the first interview, one individual said she actually didn’t remember the false event, meaning that 6 (no longer 7) participant remembered the false event altogether. This is 25%.
  • In the second session of interviews, the same 25% remembered the false memory.


Participants used more words when describing true events (mean words used to describe true event = 138.0 and mean words used to describe false event = 49.9).

Type of research method

Experiment with self-report measures (questionnaire booklet).

Type of data collected

Quantitative and qualitative.


Quantitative data: Data such as word length of recollections, clarify ratings and confidence ratings were in numerical (quantitative) form. This allows the researcher to make objective comparisons, calculate mean scores and conduct statistical analyses.

Replicable: As the procedure was mostly standardised and used rating scales, it would be possible to repeat the experiment and check the reliability.


Lack of detail: As data was almost wholly quantitative, it did not give extra insight into why participants might have felt a certain way. For example, we know their confidence rating as a number, but we do not know why they felt that level of confidence.

Not generalisable: As the sample size was relatively small and restricted, we would not be able to generalise the findings to a vast population.

Ethical issues

Informed consent: Consent was only obtained from the participant’s relative, not from the participant themselves.

Deception: Deception definitely took place.

Confidentiality: Identities were kept confidential.

Emotional or physical harm: Although no physical harm took place, emotional harm was a possibility as participants may have been affected by the implications of the false memory.

The right to withdraw: This was not explicitly mentioned.

Debriefing: Debriefing did take place at the end of the study.

Reference: Loftus, E. F. and Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The Formation of False Memories. Psychiatric Annals. 720–725