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What Happened? An Introduction to False Memories

by Alexandra Fuhs

A false memory is an unintentional fabrication of a memory. They may be entirely false or contain elements of fact that have been distorted. Memory errors are quite common, though many people may believe that they have a perfect memory. False memories can range from incorrectly believing that you turned off the lights to something more serious, like what you saw in a crime.

How are false memories created?

Memories are subject to change. Events are moved from your brain’s short-term memory storage to long-term storage while you sleep. It’s not a perfect transition; however, and certain elements may be lost or altered.

  • Suggestion: One way that false memories can be created is by the way someone asks you a question. For example, if someone ask

s, “Was that man holding a backpack?”, you’re likely to say yes but then correct yourself to say that he was really holding a duffel bag. In reality, he didn’t have a bag, but the memory was planted in your head that he really did have one.

  • Misinformation: If someone feeds you incorrect information about an event, you may become convinced that it really did happen. In this case, you’ll either believe them fully or your brain will transfer some of the elements of what they told you into what really happened, creating a mixture of truth and inaccuracies.

  • Inaccurate perception: If you don’t fully remember an event, your brain may fill in the gaps with things you come up with.

  • Misattribution: Your brain may combine elements of multiple events into a single one.

  • Emotions: The way you’re feeling affects how you remember things. Research shows that negative emotions lead to more false memories created than positive or neutral emotions.

Who’s more likely to be affected? What’s the impact?

Eyewitnesses are one group of people who can suffer from false memories because they are easily influenced and their brain may fill in gaps. Trauma holders often experience memories fallacies due to their past with negative events. Those with OCD are another commonly-affected group due to their poor memory confidence (which often leads to their compulsive behaviors). Finally, older people tend to have poorer memories than their younger counterparts because memory accuracy decreases with age.

False memories, though common, can be potentially harmful at times. They can lead to false accusations and wrongful convictions — in fact, false memories are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. You could also believe that you did something important when in reality you forgot, such as delivering an important paper to your boss.

It’s important to realize that everyone has minor memory fallacies at some point and that it’s simply part of being human. People who are severely affected by this may have false memory syndrome, where their life and relationships revolve around inaccurate memories; however, false memory syndrome is not currently recognized as an official mental disorder. While this all may seem a little scary, it’s key to realize that your memory is naturally vulnerable to misinformation and to simply be cautious of how much trust you put into it.


  1. Healthline. “False Memory: What You Need to Know”. Mental Health, 23 April 2019.

  1. VeryWellMind. “False Memories”. Cognitive Psychology, 31 July 2020.

  1. Scholarpedia. “False memory”. 10 July 2009.

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