False Memories Creating False Criminals, with Dr. Julia Shaw

March 02, 2015

Memory is remarkably fallible, as we often frustrate ourselves with how certain we are about where we left our car keys only to realize how entirely wrong we were. But could it be that our memories are so easily corrupted that we could be led to believe we’ve committed crimes that never happened? (And while we’re at it, could Brian Williams have sincerely believed that he had been under attack in that helicopter?)

This week on Point of Inquiry, Lindsay Beyerstein talks to Dr. Julia Shaw, a forensic psychology lecturer and false memory researcher. Dr. Shaw recently conducted a study in which she found that 70 percent of college-age students were convinced that they had committed a crime that never actually took place. By mixing actual facts with misinformation, in as little as 3 hours of friendly conversation, students not only admitted to committing these fictional crimes, they went as far as to recall details of their manufactured experience. Shaw suggests that these results have alarming implications for the way we conduct criminal investigations. It seems as though our own imaginations may be working against us more than we ever thought possible.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, March 2nd, 2015. 

Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is Dr. Julius Shah, a memory researcher and lead author of a fascinating paper that shows that 70 percent of college students can be made to remember committing crime as a teenager if they never committed. Julia, welcome to the program. Hi, Lindsay. Glad to be here. So how big of a problem are false confessions? 

False confessions are one of the leading reasons for why individuals are wrongfully convicted for crimes that they didn’t commit. So in addition to other forensic evidence being messed up or other causes such as eyewitness misidentification or poor eyewitness memory, false confessions are a huge contribution to these these wrongful convictions. 

A lot of people have a hard time sort of intuitively wrapping their minds around the idea that somebody would ever confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. What kind of factors predispose someone to do such a thing? 

So it might seem intuitively like only a susceptible people would be or a certain kind of person would be able to confabulate, as we call it, or generate these details from memories that never happened. But in reality, it seems that’s the way that memory fundamentally works, is that there are fundamental flaws and these flaws seem to be universal. So even in what we call superior autobiographical memory individuals, so individuals who have amazing recollection, accurate recollection, most of the time even they have been shown to be prone to false memories. So it seems to be fundamental to absolutely everyone, not just to specific individuals with specific traits, but other factors. 

When you go back and retrospectively look at false confessions, cases, are there factors that make people somewhat more likely to turn up as false confessors? 

There are some factors that increase the likelihood. And one of these things. One of these factors seems to be what we call compliance or the likelihood that someone is going to do what an interviewer asks of them. And in addition to compliance, what do you usually associated with compliance, in fact? Is age is really just being younger. And so especially teenagers have been shown to acquiesce more quickly to situational demands and to give an interviewer what he or she wants. And that can include the fabrication of details that then become internalized and become part of their personal reality. 

In the paper, you outline sort of a schema that some other researchers have developed where things that happen in interview that people are encouraged people to internalize a false confession. So it’s one thing to make something up and know you’re making it up in order to please an authority figure because you think you’re going to get to go home. But the really amazing ones are the ones where people come to believe what they’ve just confabulated. Can you talk about that typical process or schema in these interviews whereby people come to internalize their own false confessions? 

Absolutely. So, of course, in the situations you were describing for someone might want to escape, for example, in a bad situation or scary situation, an adverse interviewing technique, essentially in that situation, you can almost understand why someone would just confessed to a crime he didn’t commit to get out of the situation. In the study that I did, which used what’s called the familial informant false narrative procedure in this study or in this paradigm, what we do is we have individuals go through actually wrote a friendly interview situation on three occasions, and we combine false information that we have ahead of time about this individual in front of us or who their best friend was at the time where they grew up. And we spend those details together in a very actually primitive or quick manner with misinformation and misinformation is telling them that they committed a crime that they never, in fact, committed. So in these situations, unlike in these high pressure interviews, we’re generating a situation where individuals come to accept and they want to remember and they’re trying to to remember the situation that never happened. But it’s really proving or demonstrating that you don’t need to be in a negative, horrible situation in order to confabulate these kinds of details. It can be a friendly interview. 

So you reached out to these college students, caregivers like there and or their mom or whoever it was, and got some real details and ascertained that these people had not, in fact, ever committed a crime that the caregiver knew of and had never been involved with the police. So you got real details from the caregiver and then you mixed them in with false details and basically told them your mom says you drew a knife on your little cousin when you were eleven or something like that. 

Similar, yes. So but we definitely took these real details and mixed them. So what it did is it introduced a level of credibility and it made it personal. So it gave the interviewer credibility in that. Look, I know information that’s accurate about your history. And then the interviewee would look at that and go, wow. Yeah. And they had just in this method recalled a true memory that we’d, as the parents about say it spent about 20 minutes just talking about an actual memory that had happened around the same time. And now we were confronting them with also credible details. But in a way, that was. Erroneous and what is amazing is that we actually didn’t even have to go as far as seeing you, as you said, pulled a knife on your cousin. Your cousin Ed, let’s say all we did is we said because we had a template. We had a scripted interview procedure to make sure that there standardization across participants and across conditions. And in this, what we did is we said your parents reported that when you were 14 and we randomly assigned the age when you were 14, you were with your friend Ed, and the police called your parents because you assaulted someone with a weapon. It was fall and you were in your hometown of New York. That’s all we tell them. So we would just literally use the term you assaulted zone with a weapon or you assaulted someone or you stole something. And they would then go into explaining exactly what that meant to them. 

Where did you get any really great stories that people confabulated think funny or weird? 

So everybody’s story was different in various ways. Some individuals chose to have a fight occurring against their childhood bully, for example. You could only see being a fantasy when they were younger that this had happened and now they’re like, oh, maybe did happen. So these fights took on very different shapes and sizes. One of them was over a boy. One of them she was. Had mentioned that this other girl, who she used to hang out with, but she didn’t get along with very well, said something about a relationship she was in. And then she threw a rock at her and hit her. And the police came by later and and an interrupted dinner. And it was this very elaborate confabulation. And she was reenacting this crime that had never committed. So she reenacted the rock throwing and she looked like she was looking at it in her hand, which was quite amazing to see this level of detail. This is the same level of detail that you’d expect from real memories. 

And it was the same level of detail that you found comparing people’s real memories that you were quizzing them about. Right. 

It was it was so it wasn’t the same level on everything. So confidence, for example, was still higher for real memories. And number of details overall was still higher as well. But what we saw is that four false memories, perhaps surprisingly or hopeful, surprisingly, there were people were smelling things. They were hearing things, they were tasting things, they were complex or what we would call multi sensory. And they had the same kind of complexity as true memories. And in fact, in a follow up study that we’re just finishing up right now, when other people watch videos, so we record videotape, all of these interviews, when other people watch these recollections or people describing these false memories, they can’t tell the difference. So other people watching them also can’t tell the difference. And according to their self report accounts, participants were saying that they felt about the same as well. 

It’s really interesting. When you asked the parents to provide this information, didn’t you say, I’m not going to punk my kid? That’s mean. 

So the parents, they probably would have, but we didn’t tell them. So there was a lot of deception involved in the study, which is part of why it worked, because I think if you were to tell the parents or the kids or they weren’t children, at this point there are university students, but their sons and daughters, if you were to tell them that they were coming in for a false memory study, they’d be expecting it. And then they presumably wouldn’t trust us and they wouldn’t accept the details that we’re giving them. So what we said was that it was about emotional memories, which is true. Absolutely. It was just about a social false. 

And you guys did some fun set decoration to make sure that you really built up your image as authoritative memory researchers in the interview room. 

We did. So actually, I was the only one conducting the interviews. Ethical restraints. We had a very detailed ethical outline that had to be approved and a huge debriefing procedure just to make sure that everything went exactly as hassle free as possible and everything did in the end, which was great. 

I know undergrads were harmed in the making of this knowledge. 

Exactly. They were fascinated and their credit ends where it were telling us how or telling me specifically how it’s so amazing that their mind can do this. They were showing up to my memory classes the following semester. I had them self identifying when I talk about the studies and they would talk about their experiences. It was amazing. 

People have really superior autobiographical memories are as vulnerable to confabulation as anybody else. What do you think that is in terms of how memory works? 

So there’s a number of theories that’s tried to explain why memory is fallible in the way that it is and that we can fill in the blanks, if you will, or even make up things that have what seems like Finnair like in my study. And it seems that it’s one of these theories is called Fuzzy Trace Theory, and it posits that we store autobiographical memory in two different ways. And that’s as just fragments and as verbatim fragments. Now, without getting too technical, what that means essentially in the just memory fragments, you store the essence of something. For example, what your friend is like. So you describe your friend. I hear she is bubbly and nice and loving in the verbatim, as I might suggest. It’s the exact representation or the surface form is at sometime. Referred to. So what your friend looks like would be one example. And you can describe exactly what their eye color was, exactly what their hair is like. That would be one example of the two types of memory that we have. And what research indicates is that these two types of memory are usually associated with one another. But in reality, they’re actually stored separately. And so what you can do is by having these separate representations, as you can take a just and erroneously combine it with a new verbatim so I can, for example, tell a participant or vice versa. I can tell a participant. Think about your hometown. And that will give you a just memory almost automatically, because you know what your city is like. You might even start accessing immediately verbatim fragments, picturing exactly what it was like. And building on the sense of familiarity and building on these real pieces of memories. Then I can combine that with other pieces that you have. And together spin a story out of real memory fragments you have. But in a combination that never actually happened. 

Are people sort of mining their own memories for genuine traces? Somebody says, do you remember getting into a fight or whatever it was? And you’re remembering some real conflict that you had or being in your hometown that week and what the weather like real memories, but then get drawn in together to create a plausible account in light of what’s being asked of you. 

Exactly. So that’s exactly right. Is that if I say your parents said that you were in your hometown and you assaulted someone, you start thinking about your hometown. You start thinking about real people, real places. Who could it have been? Who would I have assaulted? Where would I have been? And then you take that. And for you, you make a plausible story. And then that plausible story with these real elements gets filled out. It gets fleshed out. 

I caught myself forming a false memory the other day. And I’m wondering if you could tell me, like, sort of a schema of what was going on. Cognitively for me. So there was this one pretty epic night a couple of summers ago. I went out with a couple of friends of mine. It was fairly epic until about two o’clock in the morning when I went home. And I know I did because I had my pedometer on me. So I was like I was definitely home by two a.m. Things got respectably epic around 5:00 AM. And I’ve heard this story a million times. And as I was walking by the bar where it took place, it’s a bar just up the street from me. I was remembering it as if I had been there seeing my friends seduce this bartender. And I was definitely not there, but I was remembering it as if I was there and I caught myself. I was like, wait a minute, I know that didn’t happen. I’ve heard my friends tell this story, certainly. 

So other people’s stories quite easily can become our own, if you will. We actually say this all the time. Most time we’re not recognizing that that’s happening. 

But you’re essentially taking someone else’s just memory and making it your own someone else’s verbatim memory and making it your own. So, again, it’s real pieces of things you’ve heard and narratives you’ve you’ve heard about or seen, but then you’re mis attributing where you learned that information and you have what we call source confusion and you’re confusing it and thinking that you’re the source, your experiences a source as opposed to somebody else’s. 

Because I was remembering my friend in this beautiful white body con dress with her long flowing hair is my room. And when I went back and thought about it, like, know that dress? She went dressed to a different party. 

Yeah. So there is double source confusion going on there in terms of maybe thinking it was your memory when it was somebody else’s. And then piecing in another memory from a totally different time. 

So during that, 70 percent of people over the course of these three interviews were able to come up with something and most of them believed it. They were honestly believed that it weren’t just going along, but lying about the 30 percent who were just steadfast in what they did not remember. 

Well, it’s a bit of an overstatement, actually. So the 30 percent we’re still assigned into what we call compliance acceptance. And the only four participants actually were assigned to no false memory at all. In other words, in terms of steadfast saying this didn’t happen and I don’t remember any of it. And I’m not going to give you any details. We only have four people actually met that criteria. 

So it’s not a huge number of people out of a group of 60 or 70 that you started with. 

Yet out of the 60 we started with four and then six were said to be compliance and six were said to be accepted. So in compliance, those six participants were saying that they didn’t really remember it happening. But until the end, until the debriefing, when we asked them, did you believe this actually happened? They were giving us details. So they were giving us some details. And we’re complying with the situation. So they were giving us what they thought we wanted to hear. But at the end said, no, I didn’t actually believe it happened. And then on the other hand, we had a couple participants who were accepting it, saying, yes, I believed you. And I believed that I had committed this crime, but I couldn’t remember anything. And so they said they accepted our accounts, but they didn’t confabulate any details. So this definitely warrant further study. But because the sample sizes for these groups are so small right now, there was nothing special that was setting these these individuals apart. 

It’s easy to see how the unreliability of our memory can be a huge disadvantage, especially in a modern technological society where we have courts and proof beyond a reasonable doubt and trials and all these things. But is there. Sense maybe in the evolutionary adaptive environment where a more malleable memory might have been adaptive. 

I like evolutionary theories because they’re always fun to play with. Inevitably, you’re going to come up with a number of plausible explanations of how perhaps something could have aided evolution. I would argue, and there have been arguments saying that perhaps this memory malleability is good because it also means that we’re not going to necessarily remember all the horrible things in our lives to be as horrible as they actually were. But in reality, I just think it’s because memory, just like everything else from an evolutionary standpoint, is just good enough. It’s good enough for us to socialize. It’s good enough to reproduce. It’s good enough for us to successfully raise the next generation of our offspring. And that’s all it needs to be. And so this fallibility, I don’t think is inherently evolutionarily adaptive. I think it’s just a byproduct of just like our eyes and our bodies and our muscles and everything else. It’s just evolved to the point where it had to. 

I was wondering, though, if maybe it might be adaptive in the sense that we’re really fallible beings in general and are our takes on reality are flawed. And one of the great advantages that we have is social animals. And his language using social animals is that we can compare notes and basically we don’t just have our brains take on reality. We have a whole social shared social understanding of what’s real. 

And if we were all just adamant that our own perceptions were the absolute gospel and nobody else is counted against anything, you know, kind of something that we’d remembered, we wouldn’t be able to have the sort of shared operating environment in which we’re actually drawing on memories of tons of people. And maybe it’s not accurate all the time, but if our memories are kind of reciprocally updating each other, maybe that’s an advantageous thing. 

It can’t be, although you also get individuals who will just absolutely insist that their memory is the accurate one. And I think in any family debate, they’ll be the one person who insists that, no, their memory is correct. And Sue or you’re your sister wasn’t actually there or whatever it is, even though everyone else in the group might be saying the opposite. So I think that it can also lead to conflict. And people almost everybody I would say maybe not everybody, but many, many people, I think overestimate and have overconfidence in their memories. So it’s going to lead to fights. It’s going to lead to discords, even though everyone’s memory is terrible. 

So really famous case right now in the news. NBC anchor Brian Williams has just signed himself off the air for a couple of days while NBC investigates some things he said on the air about his experience covering the Iraq war. He claims that 2003, he was in a helicopter that was shot down by a rocket propelled grenade and that he landed in the desert and was taken care of by this unit of U.S. troops. And the troops call them out on Facebook, which eventually became a feature for Stars and Stripes, saying, no, you weren’t in the helicopter that was shot down. You were in the helicopter behind that helicopter by several minutes, maybe up to an hour or something like that. And they all just landed in the same place because it was a convenient spot to land. 

And he’s admitted that what he said was not accurate. And I’m wondering, do you think that there’s a chance that he’s suffering from a false memory? 

So let’s start with this. A lot of individuals believe that we should have better memory for highly stressful or life threatening situations like this one, where you’d think if you get shot down or you’re perceived you’re threatened to get shot down in a helicopter, in a war zone, that this would be something that you would remember and you would remember accurately. Sometimes these are referred to or this notion is referred to as flashbulb memories. Same thing with where were you when 9/11 happened? There’s this notion that while everybody knows where they were when 9/11 happened, in reality, if we look at the literature, there is no such thing as flashbulb memories. Stress does have an impact on memory, but not necessarily in the way that we expect it to. And stress can also severely inhibit or impair memory formation as well. And so what we find is that even in situations that after the fact, are given a lot of importance, assigned a lot of importance, like 9/11, like an attack in a helicopter. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to have any better memory for that event. And yes, they’re still prone to the exact same fallible processes as any other memory. And so it’s it’s possible. It’s possible. It’s false memory. 

Is it true, though, that I mean, it seems like people are more likely to remove things that are in some way out of the ordinary than what were you doing last Tuesday randomly? If you got in a car accident last year, that you’d be more likely to remember that you were in a car accident then, that you took the subway to work and came home and watch Netflix? 

Yes, that’s correct. 

And he’s presumed, it seems, that he’s accurately remembering that he wasn’t a helicopter that day and he was in a war zone. So with regard to the basics, yes, it was out of the ordinary, presumably, although maybe not as out of the ordinary for a newscaster as for you and I, for example. 

But it’s also still the specifics. The specifics don’t necessarily have any additional accuracy over any other kind of memory. 

The things that I find really hard to believe, though, is that he mentioned this on his own show and they went back to the three 2003 footage. They got it out of the vaults at NBC to show pictures of the damaged Retter on a helicopter and pictures of Brian Williams in the cabin of a helicopter that day. And it’s like, I don’t understand how it could have made it to air without someone, actually. Realizing that the footage was telling a totally different story than anything that Brian Williams was saying. 

I don’t know either with regards to how exactly that came to air. But what I do know is that he wrote a blog post, I believe originally, and he didn’t mention that he was in the helicopter that was shot down. And that was an addition that came later when he was being interviewed. There’s actually something called retrieval induced forgetting, which means that the more often we retrieve something, the more likely we are to forget or distort details. And in his retelling of the event, it’s possible, especially after sharing it with the potentially the individuals who were in the actual helicopter or just hearing about it later, that he mixed his memory with the account that he heard from others. 

One thing that always struck me about him is that he was always really sort of sycophantic towards the military. He’s one of those reporters that sort of clearly wants to be a not a soldier or at least a tough guy. He’s always using jargon and publicly hanging out at sporting events with soldiers that he’s covered in action. And, you know, you were mentioning earlier about your own research subjects that when prompted when cued, they often came up with elements of fantasy that became the backbone of our memories. Do you think that that might play a role? 

This reminds me of an adage which is don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. And sometimes what we also know is that something called fantasy proneness or just in general fantasizing or picturing things happening can actually increase our perception of believing that that actually did happen. So by having this imagination, inflation, it’s sometimes called. Yeah, maybe he really wanted it to be true, but it still doesn’t mean that he necessarily lied about it later. So maybe he did pictures like, oh, what would it have been like if I had been in that front helicopter? It could have easily been me. I mean, these are the kinds of things that we hear ourselves saying in those kinds of situations all the time. It could have been me if I’d gotten on one airplane earlier that if an airplane just crashed or it could have been me if I had been in the car in front of me. In this case, it could have been me if it was the helicopter. And so he’s possibly even likely thinking about what it could have been like. And in my experiments, the what it could have been like is exactly what I use to generate these illusions and to generate these false memories. 

You mentioned the term fantasy proneness. Researchers still think that having a fantasy prone personality is associated with things like coming to believe that you’ve been abused by a satanic cult or abducted by aliens or some of the fantastic things that people seem to sincerely remember about their biography that fly in the face of everything we know about reality. 

Fantasy proneness is a term that hasn’t been used as much lately. There is still a fantasy proneness scale or a creative experience in scale that’s so much nicer. It does sound so much nicer. And it has to do with how likely you are to to picture yourself and to picture things like alien abductions, picture things that, as you said, most people would accept as impossible memories. And there is something to suggest that individuals who are very high in fantasy proneness are more likely to engage in confabulations and to generate false memory details. 

But again, overall, even individuals who are not scoring high on these suggestibility and on fantasy proneness are still having impossible memories implanted. So they’re remembering things like a mobile hung above their bed when they were barely born three months old, which we also know is impossible in terms of memory formation. They’re remembering things that’s in various ways couldn’t have happened. And it has nothing to do necessarily with them being particularly prone to fantasy. It’s just that they might believe you and they might well fill in the blanks. 

How does the passage of time affect one’s susceptibility to forming false memories? Can your study you had 20 somethings, kids in their early 20s, basically remembering something that happened in their early teens or tween years. And Brian Williams is remembering today something that happened in 2003. Is there any researcher guidelines about how much time has to pass or whether gets progressively more likely as you get further and further away from the actual event? 

I think that there are a number of factors that would confirm it or reasons for why individuals should degrade at least somewhat over time. And that’s for one, you’re experiencing new things that can conflict. Like you said, you were picturing your friend in a dress that you had seen her in before, but now you’re picturing her in a different situation. Also, what you’ve been in before, perhaps, or location. And so with the passage of time that can get you ever more blurred and your perception of time for that period can get crunched together, essentially. So all of your 20th year suddenly feels like a really quick amount of time or all of your thirteenth year, let’s say, is like a blink in time when you’re twenty five. But when you’re at the end of your 13th year, it’s gonna be really, really long still. So I mean, there is something to be said for just perceptions of time and how they affect our memory. 

Inherently, there’s no reason why it has to degrades unless you’re retelling a story, unless you’re going over it repeatedly. Because then again, those retrieval days forgetting kind of things can happen. There’s no no, we can’t say memories last X amount of time because we know that some memories can last a lifetime. But most memories probably last, at least in a tiny, distorted way for long periods of time. And some just fade out altogether. 

So Brian Williams basically recorded the story on. He told a pretty consistent version of the story until about 2007, when it began to radically diverge from the known record. Is there any lesson that we can draw from that? I mean, does that make it more likely or less likely that he’s honestly recalling this? 

I don’t know if it does either. Really, it doesn’t. So I think that sea story can change. And then you can stick to that story and that can happen intentionally or unintentionally. So I don’t think that that necessarily suggests whether or not he’s intentionally doing this. You just can’t say based on that. 

Do we know anything about how people’s timelines on which people’s 9/11 memories changed course? And we know that they’re different now than they should have been based on the facts. But do we have any sense of the trajectories or people were telling an accurate story, an accurate story, an accurate story, and suddenly veered off course at some point? 

Not that I know of. I’ve never heard of a study that looks at exactly that. And usually it’s progression. Usually it’s a distortion over time. But if you have someone coming in and suddenly giving you new information, like in a trial, in a criminal trial, if you have someone coming in who’s being accused of a crime and let’s say they’ve been telling the same story, telling the same story. Now they come out of a police interview and their story has changed or they’re in a police interview and a story is changed. It could be that, for example, an information was introduced in that interview that makes them question their memory or that changes their own memory or that gets built into their own memory. So experiences like that’s a retelling of stories or certain situations where new information is is introduced can certainly have what seems like an abrupt change in those kinds of things. 

What lessons does your research have for ways that we could reform the criminal justice system and law enforcement to get more accurate information out of people? 

What lessons? 

The major lesson is that everybody has a potential to form false memories, as far as we can tell, which means that we shouldn’t just be careful when we’re talking about individuals who seem overtly and obviously vulnerable, like children, like young people, like individuals who have low by cues or learning disabilities. We need to take into account that this can happen with absolutely everybody. And what that means for questioning is that we need to be careful not to introduce what’s called misinformation. So don’t bring in evidence that wasn’t recalled by the participants themselves because that can become part of a witnesses, part of a victim’s, part of a potential confessors story. It can get woven in. It can be internalized. And so in the US, for example, there are false evidence ploys which are still being used in the false evidence ploy. The police officer comes in and says, we have your fingerprints from the scene. We know that you did X Y and we have this evidence that they don’t actually have, which increases not only the plausibility, but suddenly this offender might be building that into a story or an eyewitness or a victim. 

You’re ever being interviewed for a crime in the United States. They can totally lie. The Supreme Court said they can say whatever they want in an effort to get you to confess, including just fabricating stuff out of whole cloth. 

The U.S. is not a great place to be if you’re accused of wrongly accused of a crime, not a good place at all. There’s a lot of techniques that are leading questions, suggestible things that really feed into suggestibility are still used all the time. That’s not legal in the UK, is it, for the police to lie to you? It’s not legal. No, it’s not legal in a lot of other countries. 

The U.S. is one of the few remaining rate is legal. So that’s a big one. And another one is that just because it’s not a torture situation or a situation where, you know, you’re being pressured into something, it doesn’t mean that you can’t in the false memory in my study. I was doing friendly interviews. In fact, I would argue that being friendly to people might actually make them more likely to generate false memories because they’re really wanting to help you. Especially when we’re talking about eyewitnesses. They’re trying to be good eyewitnesses. Right. And if they think if you’re sitting there confirming knotting, being nice, they’re going, oh, look, I’m doing a really good job of being a witness. Let me continue on this trajectory. 

Some jurisdictions have introduced different models of criminal interviewing. Right. That are based on science. Can you tell us a bit about the different models that people use? 

Well, in the US, there’s something called the Reid model, which has come under a lot of attack, which is what most people would sort of identify as a good cop, bad cop type situation. But in terms of science based, evidence based procedures, individuals or police officers in the US, in the U.S. and in the U.K., depending on how evidence based they choose to be, they use something called the cognitive interview or interview based questioning rather than an interrogation. Especially when talking to potential suspects. And in that situation, what you’re doing is you’re looking for information. You’re trying to ask for free recall. Tell me everything about the event that you can remember. You’re not giving them information. You’re not poking and prodding and you’re just seeing what comes out. You’re seeing what the individual has to say. And it seems to be far more effective tool, a far more effective method of getting real information and avoiding false confessions, at least to some extent. 

How does it do on generating true confessions? Because the police here will always say, oh, well, you know, if you’re if you want to change your interviewing standards, you’re soft on crime because nobody would ever confess and let’s break them over the coals and lie to them and did all the stuff. I mean, come on, they wouldn’t invest in something they didn’t do. 

Do gentler, more investigation. We accurate interview techniques produced fewer true confessions as well. 

It’s a good question. Situation where we’re trying to avoid putting innocent people in prison, but we’re also, as you said, trying to get true confessions. We do get true confessions. We get lots of true confessions or true narratives, even if you don’t get a confession or confessions that are likely backed by facts that are backed by facts. I don’t know the actual rate for the cognitive interview. It’s really hard to know. But it is easy to know that in these situations, even if you don’t get a confession, you’re getting more reliable information that can be taken to court. So while a confession is a really strong piece of evidence, there should be other evidence anyways. Otherwise you shouldn’t be putting someone in prison. So a confession, only accusation and a confession only account should never be enough to put someone away. And so in that situation, you don’t need a confession. You can just have an account. You can have something that points you in that direction. 

Do you think that there should be legal changes made to, say, jury instructions? Because it seems like people are convicted essentially on the basis of their confessions alone all the time? 

There are some country specific differences with the U.S. It’s a bit more likely that a confession can be the main piece of evidence than in other countries. But most places you can’t get convicted by confession alone. You still need something else. But so with regards to legal changes, legal changes, I think that we have a long way to go yet. To be honest, the cognitive interview is better and using interviewing, that’s fact finding as opposed to the ultimate goal being confession is a great start. However, in my study, I used the cognitive interview to generate false memories. Sure, I combined it with some misinformation, which you shouldn’t do and you can I it with a lot of leading situations and a visualization exercise, which again, you probably wouldn’t do. But with regards to actually getting the details and the confession out of people, I didn’t use the Reid model. I didn’t use good cop, bad cop. I use the status quo of best practice for policing, and that’s really scary. So the fact that I’m using what’s the better alternative that we have right now and I’m still getting these false confessions means that there’s a lot of work to be done. 

So you are the author of a forthcoming book on memory. Can you tell us a bit about it? 

I am so with Penguin, Random House and a number of other international publishers. I’m bringing out a book called The Memory Illusion Why You May Not Be Who You Think You Are. And it’s all about understanding why we can confabulate details, why we can fill in the blanks, why you can possibly leave your house and be like, did I just did I take the key? Did I. Did I turn off the oven even though you were just there? 

And how you can then maybe fill in those lengths and try to guess at them or or otherwise and building all the way up to how people can be convinced that they have memories for things like alien abductions or satanic ritual abuse. That’s impossible. So it’s it’s a book that really covers from the little tiny memory errors and false memories that happen every day all the way up to absolutely impossible, bordering on science fiction type errors. 

Do you have advice for people who care about the integrity of their memories and really want to make sure that they’re autobiographical? Memory is sound. Do you recommend journaling or anything else? 

I recommend not placing as much importance on the list as many people do. There’s sort of a consensus right now in memory research that suggests that all memory is essentially false. So the question isn’t how false is my memory or how accurate is my memory? The question is in which ways is it false? And is it close enough to reality to give you a sense of what actually happened in my life? And I think that because in most cases, you can’t prove it. You can’t go back in history. You don’t have independent corroborating evidence necessarily pick a version you like. Take the memories you enjoy most. Think about those. A lot of them are going to be distorted in various ways, unintentionally anyways. And if you do really want to make sure you keep track of something, photos or good videos or good journaling can help but ultimately enjoy that memory is is reconstructed and that it’s has its potential to really be so much more than just things that you actually experienced. 

We have so many records of social media and digital photographs. We have such recorded lives from infancy onwards. And I was looking at the photographs that my grandmother had of this one photograph of her from when she was twelve years old. She lived on the prairie where it was a big deal to get the target would ride out and take your picture where you had to sit still for 90 seconds to make it come out sharp. But I just wonder if our autobiographical memories, when we’re that age, are going to be fundamentally different because we have this huge corpus of evidence to work with compared to one photo for your entire adolescence. 

Probably it will be fundamentally different. It’s also different in that when we take pictures, we’re actively engaging with that situation or that scene more. And so you’re paying more attention to that thing and you’re rehashing it. You’re going back to your photo. You’re looking at it. You’re re experiencing that event multiple times. But what that also means is that you’re ruling out all the other things you could have been experiencing at the time and you’re not going back and remembering the things. You didn’t take pictures out, so it might lead to a more selective memory overall. So might be better for those particular situations, but it might still be very selective. And I don’t know about you, but photos really just capture a tiny snapshot of what’s actually going on in the situation. So there’s still a lot of potential for false memory in there. 

Sure. This has been a fascinating discussion. Thank you so much for coming on the show. 

No problem. Thanks for having me. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.