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How to Instill False Memories

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Everyone enjoys the occasional practical joke – assuming the gag isn’t mean-spirited or overly perilous, even the prank’s poor victim can appreciate the punch line!

I’m sure you have your favorites: gluing dollars to sidewalks, filling your co-worker’s office with balloons, moving your roommate’s bed to the basement… while he’s sleeping in it.

More typical stunts may employ whoopee cushions, fake vomit, and hand buzzers, but honestly, those are a tad sophomoric and overdone. Thus, in an effort to elevate the standard of stunts, I’d like to present a gag that makes use not of stink bombs, but of science.

How to implant false memories in your friends, in four steps:

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan argued that implanting false memories in people is not only possible, but is actually pretty easy when attempted in the proper settings with a gullible subject, He cited as examples people who, at the urging of therapists or hypnotists, genuinely start to believe that they’d been abducted by UFOs or falsely remember being abused as a child. For these people, the distinction between memory and imagination becomes blurred, and events that never actually took place become sewn into their memories as real events. They can even describe these false remembrances incredibly vividly – as if they actually happened!

“Memory can be contaminated,” Sagan wrote. “False memories can be implanted even in minds that do not consider themselves vulnerable and uncritical.”

Sagan’s insight provides a segue into step one of our plot to implant a memory, which is made possible by a frank fact: your friends — while undoubtedly honest, funny, supportive, and intelligent — probably don’t all possess invulnerable and critical minds. Thus, the first step is to select one of your mates who, in your estimation, is “prone to suggestion.” Please note that you should be acquainted with this friend for at least five years, and have shared experiences with him or her. This will enhance your believability, and thus your odds of success.

Once you’ve got your target singled out, the next, and possibly the most critical step, is to fabricate a memory. The false memory should have “taken place” at least a year in the past, not be unduly intricate, and not be something that might engender strong feelings of emotion.

Studies have shown that it’s easy to make people falsely recall small details about events, but as the fake memories grow in complexity and specificity, implantation grows progressively harder, though not impossible. After three interviews, researchers at Western Washington University succeeded in getting subjects to recall details about accidentally spilling a bowl of punch on the parents of the bride at a wedding reception. As described by University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth Loftus in a 1997 article for Scientific American:

During the first interview one participant, when asked about the fictitious wedding event, stated, “I have no clue. I have never heard that one before.” In the second interview the participant said: “It was an outdoor wedding and I think we were running around and knocked something over like the punch bowl or something and um made a big mess and of course got yelled at for it.”

Emotions tend to make people remember associated events more vividly. (You probably can recall where you were and what you were doing around the time of traumatic events, for example.) Thus, your target might not be as apt to accept a false memory if you told him or her that they experienced something highly emotional. In 1999, researchers at the University of British Columbia did succeed in convincing 26% of their subjects that they had been victims of a vicious animal attack in their childhood, but the research team’s sophisticated methods probably won’t apply in a practical joke setting.

Choosing a childhood memory will give you the best odds of success. You’ll have an easier time implanting something that supposedly occurred far in the past. Since this is meant to be a practical joke, I recommend creating a false memory that’s comical and not potentially life-scarring.

If you want more of a challenge, try to implant a memory that supposedly occurred more recently. For example, you could concoct a scene at a bar in which you purchased your friend a plethora of drinks and he or she never paid you back. That way, should you succeed, you’ll get some money out of the deal (…which you will, of course, give back once you reveal your playful deception).

With the memory and target selected, your third task is to prepare. You’re going to need a couple things if the prank will have any chance of success. First off, you’ll need to formulate some narrative details surrounding the false memory. Be as specific as possible. What outfit was your friend wearing? What were the circumstances that led to the event? What was the setting like? Who was there?

If you’re skilled at editing images, you could also try doctoring a photo. In 2002, psychologists exposed twenty subjects to a false childhood event using a fake photograph. Over three interviews, subjects were instructed to think about the photo, which showed them on a hot air balloon, and were made to recall the event with guided-imagery exercises. At the study’s conclusion, fifty percent of subjects ended up concocting complete or partial false memories!

You’ll also need corroborators; the more the better. The power of corroboration in instilling false memories was demonstrated in the 1990s by researchers at Williams College. In their study, participants were falsely accused of causing a computer to crash by pressing a wrong key. According to Loftus:

“The innocent participants initially denied the charge, but when a confederate said that she had seen them perform the action, many participants signed a confession, internalized guilt for the act and went on to confabulate details that were consistent with that belief.”

Now you’re ready to set your plan in motion. When you commence, be persistent. The memory may not stick right away; you’ll probably have to bring it up multiple times over a span of days or even weeks. Additionally, don’t be afraid to use peer pressure. You and your compatriots should utilize phrases like the following:

  • “Really? You don’t remember that?”
  • “Seriously? You were there!”
  • “Your memory is awful!”

Memory isn’t static. It’s fickle, ever changing, and easily tampered with; a patchwork quilt that can be ripped, torn, and remade.

“Perhaps what we actually remember,” says Carl Sagan, “is a set of memory fragments stitched onto a fabric of our own devising. If we sew cleverly enough, we have made ourselves a memorable story easy to recall.”

Still, implanting a false memory in a person, and having them fully believe it, takes some doing. Even in the lab, researchers succeed less than half of the time…

…but it can be done. So sew away, my friends. Sew away.

Images: Balloons by Tomascastelazo / Wikimedia Commons, Imagination by Mehdinom / Wikimedia Commons.

Steven Ross Pomeroy About the Author: Steven Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor for Real Clear Science, a science news aggregator. He regularly contributes to RCS’ Newton Blog. As a writer, Steven believes that his greatest assets are his insatiable curiosity and his ceaseless love for learning. Follow on Twitter @SteRoPo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 18 Comments

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  1. 1. annanances 10:42 am 02/19/2013

    Something about all of this seems very diabolical.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 11:50 am 02/19/2013

    IMO, the perpetrators of such a personal deception on a ‘friend’ deserve whatever tragedy befalls them as a result.

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  3. 3. BillR 12:32 pm 02/19/2013

    Is this guy serious? This would be considered highly unethical at the least and could become very dangerous at the worst. I suspect that many readers of this blog would try this for reasons other than a “joke”.

    I also suspect this is one of the psychological methods used by con artists to weasel their way into other peoples lives and to gain their confidence.

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  4. 4. Ingamas 5:33 pm 02/19/2013

    I thought I read this but now I question this assumption.

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  5. 5. kary h 2:07 am 02/20/2013

    A couple of problems with this. Research shows it is almost impossible to plant a traumatic memory in someone. Loftus’ work has been heavily critiqued, misapplied to traumatic memory and ethics complaints have been filed against her. Search for “Lost in a shopping mall – A breach of professional ethics” to find more information on Loftus.

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  6. 6. sjfone 8:24 am 02/20/2013

    The article is a bow-wow.

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  7. 7. Joseph C Moore, Cpo USN Ret 5:50 pm 02/20/2013

    As if life doesn’t have enough inconsistencies we are going to fabricate them (just for fun)? No thank you.

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  8. 8. Humphrey2 6:02 am 02/21/2013

    As a professional therapist I know how difficult it can be to manage to problems associated with false memories. In the hands of someone inexperienced in cognitive therapy, creating false memories for the sole purpose of the personal amusement of others can create mental discord, which may lead to depression, anxiety and other mental disorders including multiple personalities. The false memory may conflict with true memory, occupying the same time frame, thus the person may start to doubt reality.
    I remember this topic being discussed during a CPD training session on managing the effects of psychological bullying……

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  9. 9. tomcloyd 1:46 am 02/22/2013

    I, too, am a professional therapist, a trauma specialist, and I’m very familiar with Loftus, the FMSF, and gaggle of semi-literate, seriously ill-informed deviates who go around harassing individuals who do what I do, and especially if they write about it. It is true that people can be misled. It is NOT true that trauma memories in individuals with PTSD or DID were “put there” by therapists. There is NO research documentation that this can be done at all. None. Yet this lie continues to be told. This article does not do that, but it feeds the believe that false memory is really a problem, without explicitly saying so. The mad dogs will be pleased, but not the lovers of truth.

    This article, and others like it, some of which have regrettably appeared in Sci. Amer., reflects the profound ignorance experimental psychologists typically have of what psychotherapists do, and why they do it. People come to us with serious, life altering suffering. We attempt to resolve it. Our success rate, when correct methods are used, is actually quite high.

    Memory is known (and this is NOT news) to be less than fully reliable. Therapists do not concern themselves with the factual content of a memory, but with the emotional content. We work to resolve THAT, and properly so, as that is what’s causing the problem. When I’ve stated this to non-therapists, they too often just don’t get it. Some of them continue to doubt the validity of the PTSD diagnosis, and especially the DID diagnosis, as if they know more than the American Psychiatric Association. They don’t.

    “False memory” is an issue only for those who haven’t kept up on their reading, or just don’t read, period.

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  10. 10. jburik 6:08 am 02/22/2013

    I realize this is a blog entry but have a sense it is “scientific” in the same way that Fox is “news.”

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  11. 11. Monarch 12:12 pm 02/22/2013

    “I’m very familiar with Loftus, the FMSF, and gaggle of semi-literate, seriously ill-informed deviates who go around harassing individuals who do what I do, and especially if they write about it. It is true that people can be misled. It is NOT true that trauma memories in individuals with PTSD or DID were “put there” by therapists. There is NO research documentation that this can be done at all.”

    Spot on! I could not have said it better myself.

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  12. 12. Monarch 12:15 pm 02/22/2013

    Steven Ross Pomeroy has now been added to my list of semi-literate, seriously ill-informed deviates who go around harassing individuals. The lack of education by this group of people frustrates me.

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  13. 13. Judy Byington, MSW, LCSW, ret 4:39 pm 02/22/2013

    There is no such thing as “Implanted Memory.” Implanted Memories are not an accepted diagnosis in the psychiatric manuel, the DSM and Loftus and her theories were discredited years ago. Yet, Dissociate Identity Disorder (DID,formerly Multiple Personality Disorder) which deals with dissociated memories of abuse from childhood has been a part of the DSM since 1994. Why is this reporter trying to prove implanted memories exist when there is no valid research on the subject? Judy Byington, Author, “Twenty-Two Faces: Inside the Extraordinary Life of Jenny Hill and Her Twenty-Two Multiple Personalities.”

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  14. 14. 2008RealityCheck 6:12 pm 02/27/2013

    Most of the ‘Extreme Climate’ events the press has claimed we’ve been having is a con job. News is constantly hyped and made up.

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  15. 15. samanthateddie 9:45 pm 02/27/2013

    I’m going to have to say this “science” article is the most irresponsibly presented piece of writing I have ever seen. Actually, I don’t have to admit that practical jokes are funny, because I don’t think they ever are. They are always based on making an innocent victim look foolish, and they frequently yield dangerous results. I understand this article is basically describing some scientific reseach, and I suppose trying to find a refreshing way to do it. But to encourage people to manipulate other people’s minds is unethical, and I hope illegal. You deserve a lawsuit.

    I look forward to your next article, in which you show us ten easy steps to building a bomb at home, and give your piece the refreshing twist of having us set it up as a really funny way to see your friend’s face when Homeland Security swarms his home and accuses him of terrorism.

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  16. 16. northernguy 11:43 pm 02/27/2013

    Sometime ago there was a jailbreak in the city where I live. The escaped prisoners carjacked a family, kicking them all out of the car in a traumatic way, and departed with it. The escapees were apprehended a little later while still in possession of the car.

    The trial of the prisoners for the series of crimes was held a year later which I had reason to attend. The lawyer for the accused, apparently trying to justify his fees, exploited a small discrepancy in the testimony of the victim/driver of the the car. The lawyer was very skillful in getting the witness to testify to a false memory.

    Beyond a shadow of a doubt the events all took place on a Wednesday during regular business hours. This was corroborated by records, 911 calls, dozens of third party witnesses to different aspects of the events, etc. However, the victim/witness testified in passing that it happened on a Sunday. The defendants’lawyer immediately began returning to this notion of it happening on a Sunday, initially in a very gentle way. Each time he encouraged the witness to say it happened on a Sunday. Each time he got the witness to repeat ever more forcefully that it all happened on a Sunday.

    Finally, the witness was at the point of offering details that supported his contention that it was on a Sunday. He was dressed in a suit and tie which he only wore to church, that the only reason he would ever have been at the location of the crime was that it was his route to church and there would be no other reason to ever be there, that the only reason he had his family in the car with him was that they were on the way to church, that his family had discussed the ordeal many times since and always included church as a detail in the events,that he only went to church on Sundays ever. The amount of detail he dredged up from his memory to support his belief that it all happened on a Sunday was amazing.

    And yet he had called the police to report the carjacking immediately after it happened on a Wednesday. The two escapees were readily identified as the perpetrators by independent witnesses on that same Wednesday. He himself had made the same identification on that same day. The escapees had been caught in the car on that Wednesday not far from the scene of the crime. They had only been out of custody for a few hours on Wednesday, otherwise they had been incarcerated before and after. Hundreds of police and prison guards were mobilized in an area search immediately after the violent escape on the Wednesday. The public received a general alert on the Wednesday in question.

    The escapees were convicted regardless of the apparent evidentiary confusion. The judge simply dismissed the confusion as being the result of a memory being implanted by a skillful lawyer.

    To all those _therapists_ who say that there is no way therapists, investigators, or anyone would or could implant false memories relating to traumatic events, I have only one thing to say.

    Bite me!

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  17. 17. bucketofsquid 5:33 pm 03/6/2013

    Messing with someone’s head is always evil. I have zero tolerance for “practical jokes” and even when I’m not the target I respond with extreme violence. No one has ever attempted a second “practical joke” in my presence. Oddly, I’ve never been arrested for assault. Apparently most law enforcement I’ve encountered agree with my assessment.

    False memories can arise and/or be implanted over time. I recently viewed some home movies of me as a child. My memories of the events were radically different than the home movies showed.

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  18. 18. JJAndson 6:02 pm 02/15/2014

    This is a truly evil article. People who go around trying to “mess” with people’s memories of what did and didn’t happen are sociopaths. This article should be titled “how to lose friends by making them stop trusting themselves.”

    We humans are fragile and yes our minds are fluid and subject to editing after the fact. Finding someone “gullible” is the same as finding someone vulnerable. Why not pick on someone a little slower, a little dreamier (often people who are naturally sensitive or even learning disabled) yeah what alot of fun.

    What a joke, this is the worst of scientists – those who experiment on other people 1. without their consent and 2. without care for that person’s well being. Implanting a negative memory can create more suffering than is needed. What a bad “friend”, I can’t even encourage someone to do this to an enemy.

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