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False memory findings may change police interrogations

A recently-published study on memory may interest individuals in Missouri. According to its findings, false memories may be successfully implanted in individuals over just a few short sessions. The researchers successfully convinced around three-fourths of their subjects that an event had occurred in their past when it had not. The study may have implications in the criminal justice system and on the practice of interrogating people suspected of involvement in a crime.

The researchers worked with university students who had never committed a crime. First, they got information from the students' primary caregivers about events that had occurred when they were between the ages of 11 and 14. Caregivers and students were not supposed to discuss the questions asked. The researchers then used some of that detail to concoct false memories. In the first session, they related both a true and an untrue story to the subjects. In the next two sessions, they asked the subjects to relate the stories back to them.

One set of students got a story about committing a crime that included an interaction with police while the other set got a story with emotional resonance. Researchers did note that in students who accepted the false memory, while they included details, the false memory was less detailed than the real one, and students were less confident about the story.

Over the longer term, if research continues in this vein, interrogation techniques may change. In the meantime, it is possible that individuals might have false memories imprinted under the pressure of questioning. The study also demonstrates the general unreliability of memory. This means that a suspect facing criminal charges who undergoes a lengthy interrogation may end up saying things that aren't true. This is an illustration of the importance of having a criminal defense attorney present at such times.

Source: Association for Psychological Science, "People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened", Jan. 15, 2015

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