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Psychology expert discusses false memory

The Chronicle Online, USA
Oct. 24, 2003
Emily Almas
www.chronicle.duke.edu

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday October 31, 2003

Have you ever been abducted by aliens? New psychological research is giving abduction survivors–and survivors of other traumatic events–reason to question their memories.

At a talk sponsored by the Duke Psychology Union Thursday night, Dr. Henry Roediger described the phenomenon of false memory–how people can mistakenly remember events that did not occur.

Roediger, chair of the psychology department at Washington University in St. Louis, spoke to a group of approximately 60 students, faculty and parents about his research on word recognition and memory. “People somehow resist the idea that their memories play tricks on them,” he said. “But they do.”

Roediger’s work focuses on how humans “activate” certain events, making associations between new events and their own past experiences–a process that can sometimes lead to “false recall.” False recall occurs when people associate events that never occurred with experiences that did happen.

Roediger worked with other researchers to test the false recall paradigm using word lists and memory tests. He and his colleagues gave research subjects lists of 15 words, which were all associated with one other word, termed the “critical lure” word. For example, a list might contain the words “drowsy,” “bed” and “dream”–all of which are associated with the word “sleep.” However, the “critical lure” itself (“sleep” in the previous example) was excluded from the list. The scientists then asked the participants to recall the word lists. In general, the researchers found people mistakenly recalled the “critical lure” as belonging in the word list. The results offered clear evidence of how easily people can create false memories.

“One reason the whole study of false memories is so popular are these horrific cases coming out of some false-memory therapy,” Roediger said. “Through some therapists’ techniques that were very suggestive, there were people who claimed to have recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, for example.”

Roediger also presented the research of Dr. Susan Clancy, formerly at Harvard University. Clancy used the word list recall method to determine whether certain people were more prone to false memories than others. Her research showed that people who believed they had repressed or recovered memories of child sexual abuse or, during her later research, purported victims of alien abduction, were more likely to inaccurately identify words not in the original lists. The implications of Clancy’s research that sexual abuse victims were more prone to false recall set off a wave of controversy.

“Remembering, like perceiving, is a constructive act and subject to illusions,” Roediger said. “There’s a large body of evidence now that shows the strong effects of experimental manipulation on memory and false recognition.”

Despite the potentially controversial nature of false memory, attendees of Thursday evening’s lecture expressed nothing but praise for the distinguished psychologist.

“He is so well-published and well-known within the field,” clinical psychology graduate student Sara Becker said. “Having the opportunity to see him in person, I was struck by how modest he is.”

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