Whatever Gave You That Idea? : The Misinformation Effect

iStock_000023926936XSmallThe story was told and retold at many events throughout my childhood. It came up at every wedding, every wake, most family events in between. It was the story of how my father’s friend, little Ray (Bucky) Dahmen, all 5-8 and 150 lbs of him, scored the dramatic winning touchdown for Notre Dame to snatch a victory away from Ohio State in the closing minutes of the game. The storyteller was always my father, as his buddy Bucky sat proudly by, grinning at the glowing reports of his heroics. Bucky would fill in the details, how he saw the play unfold and took the risks of his daring moves. (If you’re that little, you better be daring on the football field.) The two old men told and retold the story, always ending the same way. Bucky was the hero who won the game.

One day, after decades of hearing this story, my eldest brother came across the history of the infamous Notre Dame – Ohio State game. To his great surprise, the account of the great play was missing. There was no dramatic last-minute score. There were no daring moves down the field. There was no story.

My brother confronted my father. There was no game saving run by good old number 26 from Youngstown, Ohio, as told to us all of these years. My father’s reaction was a pause, then a whispered plea: “Don’t tell Bucky!”

The Misinformation Effect

Maybe this account can be attributed to two old men wanting their glory years to shine brighter in their golden years. Or, maybe, this is an example of the increasing amount of research on how frequently our memories are faulty. Skeptics will attribute faulty memories to confabulation, or plain old making stuff up to put ourselves in the best light. Confabulation certainly accounts for a portion of faulty memories, but not all of it. Consider just a few other reasons under investigation by researchers:

“Post Event Collective Memory Formulation” – This describes memory acquisition by comparing your recall of events with others who experienced the same event. Narrators who undertake the retelling of what happened have an advantage; their personal opinions or interpretations are more likely to be accepted by the larger group as “fact” and adopted as the collective memory. As a personal case study, think back on a conversation about what happened at a group meeting. Did the group’s collective memory reflect what actually happened, or the interpretation of what happened by the loudest voice?

Emotion – Our emotions distort information we take in and increase our susceptibility to post event suggestibility. The impact of emotion on memory is a root cause of why eyewitness testimony is often wrong. In a Canadian research study, participants were assigned to watch one of three events:  one with highly charged negative emotions, one with highly charged positive emotions, and one evoking neutral emotions. Participants took a subsequent survey that included questions about what they witnessed, with false information planted in the questions. Participants who witnessed events evoking highly negative emotions recalled false details 80% of the time. Those who witnessed positive events recalled false details about 40% of the time. Even those who watched the scene that produced no changed emotions got facts wrong 40% of the time. Emotions, especially negative ones, cloud our interpretation of events.

Inattentional Blindness – We miss things that happen in front of us because we were paying attention to something else. If you are among the millions of viewers who’ve watched the “gorilla” video on You Tube, you know what I mean. Viewers are asked to count how many times two people pass a ball. As the ball moves faster, many never see the gorilla that walks into the scene. Viewers don’t remember something never seen in the first place. The problem is that we look for what we expect, and believe we’ve noticed everything. We never know our original interpretation is faulty, so our recall stinks, too.

Memory is a Lousy Tool

Confabulation, post event collective memory formation, emotional impact and inattentional blindness are just a few of topics under research to explain why our crystal clear memories are often wrong.

Memory is a lousy decision-making tool because it is often faulty. The best recommendations from researchers, as well those of us in real life, is not to rely on memory alone. What does seem to help is to write things down, especially at the end of a meeting or conversation. Share with others in current time to check for agreement. If you must rely on memory, rely on more than recollections of one person. These suggestions may seem tedious. But so are endless loops of “ I did/No, you did not” debates.

A Public Service

This blog is a public service to all of us who will attend a reunion or family event this summer. Now you can honestly understand that your favorite aunt does not have the story of your great misadventure quite right. Or your high school prom date does not accurately recall your teenage social skills. If it’s innocent, assume the storytellers mean well, but are stuck in a web of misinformation. Enjoy the fiction. Don’t spoil it for Bucky.


If you’d like to read more research about memory and misinformation, here are 3 places to start:

Ozuru, Yasuhiro (2004). Formation of collective memory through group conversations: Examining the involvement of “Post Information Effect”. New School Psychology Bulletin, 2004.

Porter, Steven. ( 2003). Blinded by emotion? Effects of the emotionality of a scene on susceptibility to false memories. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, July, 2003.

Chabris, C. and Simons, D.J. (2009). The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intentions Deceive Us. New York: Random House.

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