May, 2021

Study Shows False Memories
Can Be Planted and Removed

A joint study by researchers from the University of Hagen, in Germany, and the University of Portsmouth, in the U.K., found that, while people can be susceptible to the implantation of false memories, there are techniques that can remove the false memories while leaving true memories intact. The researchers noted, “Human memory is fallible and malleable. In forensic settings in particular, this poses a challenge because people may falsely remember events with legal implications that never actually happened.” However, “false memories can be substantially reduced by easy-to-implement techniques without causing collateral damage to true memories.” The techniques, according to the lead researcher, can “empower people to really identify what might be a false memory.” False memories can have a large impact in the legal system; some experts warn of possible false confessions, while others express concerns that criminal defendants may use false memory research to discredit actual victims or witnesses.

The researchers in the recent study used a series of three interviews to implant two false ‘childhood memories’ in fifty-two participants; the participants’ parents helped in fostering the idea that the false memories were actually true memories and provided the researchers with two true memories of each participant. The interview techniques had an impact on the participants’ beliefs; mild interviewing about the fake memories led to the participants reporting some memory of the fake event about 27% of the time. More aggressive interviewing techniques led to participants falsely remembering the fake memories about 56% of the time.

Two techniques were used to try to undo the false memories: over a series of additional interviews participants were reminded that their memories might not be based on actual experiences but rather on outside sources, including information from family members. The participants were asked to determine the source for their memories of the four events. Next, the participants were told that being repeatedly asked to remember something could lead to a false memory of that event. The participants were asked to think about how that might apply to their own memories of the four events. The results showed that the participants rejected the false memories and the false memory rates were reduced to those found prior to the first interviews. Also, in a follow-up one-year later, the researchers found that the participants’ false memory rates had reduced down to 5%.

The research paper was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sources: Brianna Abbott, “False Memories Can Be Planted and Then Reversed, Researchers Find,”, March 22, 2021:
University of Portsmouth, “New study finds false memories can be reversed,”, March 24, 2021:
The study:
Aileen Oeberst, Merle Madita Wachendörfer, Roland Imhoff, and Hartmut Blank, “Rich false memories of autobiographical events can be reversed,”, March 30, 2021:

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor