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Science Shows People Regularly Remember Things That Didn’t Happen


“Memory itself is an internal rumour; and when to this hearsay within the mind we add the falsified echoes that reach us from others, we have but a shifting and unseizable basis to build upon. The picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe.” — George Santayana, “The Life of Reason: Human Understanding”

In 1975, a young woman was brutally raped in her home while she was watching TV. Shortly thereafter, she identified her assailant as Dr. Donald Thomson. On the basis of her compelling and apparently credible testimony, Thomson was arrested and charged despite having an irrefutable alibi.

In an ironic and exculpatory turn of events, authorities discovered that, prior to the attack, the woman had been watching Thomson on live TV discussing the inaccuracies of eye-witness testimony and simply confused his face with that of her rapist’s. As bizarre as this incident may appear, false memories in concert with compelling but false testimony is often the rule rather than the exception.

For example, the failure of memory and recall contributed to the wrongful criminal convictions of 75 percent of the first 250 cases in which DNA evidence exonerated the incarcerated individuals. In 2015, the National Academy of Sciences released a report summarizing decades of rigorous evidence demonstrating that common cognitive processes lead us to “recall things we never experienced.”

Thus, because “memory is an amalgam of constructive and reconstructive processes” (e.g., imagination), the naïve assumption that human testimony can provide literal, accurate, or precise descriptions of the past is “indisputably false.” Stated more simply, “people consistently remember and report events that never happened” because we are simply incapable of precisely remembering or recalling events in the distant past.

Should We Always Believe the Victim?

In 1984, a young college student was raped at knife-point in her apartment. A few days later, she identified her alleged assailant from a series of police photos as Ronald Cotton. In a poignant New York Times article, “I Was Certain, but I Was Wrong,” she wrote that she “knew this was the man. I was completely confident. I was sure.”

Her confidence was due to the fact that during the assault she “studied every detail of the rapist’s face…to make sure that he was put in prison…to rot.” Yet she was wrong. Three years later, when confronted in court with her actual attacker (as determined via DNA), she stated, “I have never seen him in my life. I have no idea who he is.’”

On the basis of her compelling and apparently credible testimony, Cotton was twice sentenced to a life in prison. Thus, because we are told to believe young women without question, a young man spent 11 years of his life behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

Strong Emotions Don’t Negate False Memories

Contrary to popular belief, the emotional content of memories leads to a “breakdown of the relationship between accuracy and confidence” such that each retelling of a stressful event increases the likelihood that false memories will be created in concert with increasing confidence in those fictional accounts.

For example, after studying thousands of battlefield interviews, the author of “The Longest Day,” Cornelius Ryan, wrote “one fact stands out more than any of the others—the very worthlessness of human testimony unless it can be substantiated by documents supporting the testimony.”

Thus, while it is unequivocal that traumatic events create stronger, more enduring “flashbulb” memories and “a sense of reliving” the experience, over time emotion-driven cognitive processes make false but compelling testimony almost inevitable.

Professor Ford Believes She Is Telling the Truth

In her appearance at the hearing regarding her accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was emotional, compelling, and to many Americans extremely credible. Yet the field of psychology has unequivocally established that an emotional and compelling retelling of a past event provides no evidence on whether that event actually occurred. Nor does the believability of Ford’s account provide any evidence regarding the truth or falsity of her impassioned testimony.

Importantly, none of these facts suggest that Ford is lying. Quite the contrary; the evidence suggests that she sincerely believes she is telling the truth. For example, we were told that she passed a polygraph. This suggests she honestly believes her testimony to be true.

Of course, many individuals may speculate that either she “beat the machine” or had a complicit or incompetent examiner. Still, after watching her testimony I sincerely believe that Ford believes she is telling the truth.

Nevertheless, her belief, my belief, and the beliefs of millions of Americans who judged her account to be credible offer no evidence about what did (or did not) occur nearly four decades ago. To argue otherwise is to ignore the science of memory.