What You Think You Recall: It’s Not Necessarily The Truth


Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever it is you think you remember? Elizabeth Loftus

In 1995 an experiment named “Lost in the Mall” gave evidence to prove that false memories could be deliberately implanted on an individual. The participants were presented with four stories from their own childhood which had been remembered and supplied by members of the participant’s family. Only three out of the four stories were true; the fourth, about getting lost in the shopping mall, was fabricated purely for the experiment and given plausible extra detail – with the assistance of family members.

Interviewed about these stories one week later and then again two weeks later, the participants were asked to then rate how well they remembered the events in the four stories. At both interviews 25% of participants claimed to have some memory of the mall incident. But even more surprisingly, on being told that one of the stories was false and being asked to guess which one, over 20% chose a true story as the false memory. Over 20% of participants had grown to sincerely believe a false memory they were told.

This experiment was run by Elizabeth Loftus, who is today a famous psychologist and an authority on the subject of false memory. Throughout her career she has conducted much research into the fallibility of our memory as human beings. Her work was initially seen as controversial when there were a number of high-profile child abuse cases which reached the courts in the 1980’s, cases which solely relied on recollection of long-term memory.

So why is her work relevant for us? Accurate recollection of past events can be difficult. Emotive or traumatic events, such as being lost in the mall, or having a formal performance discussion, are at risk of false memory syndrome. To a greater degree, the routine events in our life are also at risk of being infiltrated by false memories because we have no need to recall them.

So – do you believe that your recollection of a certain event is accurate? Take the below four points into account before answering this question.

  1. Your perception of the event may have been altered by subsequent experiences.
  2. Your perception of the event may have been suggested to you by someone who you trust.
  3. Your perception of the event may have been altered by your current emotions or ideas.
  4. Your perception of the event may have been shaped by a leading question or false information.

It all sounds like something off of a sci-fi thriller film, the idea that recollection of past events can be manipulated. But perceptions of past events have always been, and will always be political. Anyone who has seen or had to deal with ‘he said, she said’ situations knows what it’s like to have to factor in the possibility that one or both parties have a poorly judged interpretation of it. Or whether they’re just flat-out lying.

The issue here for us as HR practitioners and people managers is that people are vulnerable and can be taken advantage of when it comes to recalling the details of an event. How do we remain impartial and fair in our own thinking when we aren’t there to witness it occurring? As a part of your decision process, I would suggest putting yourself into the individual’s shoes, and performing a risk analysis based on the four pointers above. That would help you begin to assess the extent to which you believe they are playing a part in the individual’s interpretation of real world events.

No one is immune from false memories. There’s a lot of grey area here, but let’s face it – if the psychology of our brains were black and white there would be little need for HR.

  • Have you seen false memory syndrome play out – in your personal or professional life?

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