How Do We Explain False Memories?

Larry Jacoby (1999) asks the question: What causes the effect in the "I-told-you" claim? Does the claim create a false memory? From this perspective, exposure to misleading questions about an event can result in a permanent loss from memory of details of the actual experience (Loftus, 1975). In other words, the experience is overwritten by the misleading information. A "blocking" account suggests that exposure to misinformation impairs accessibility to the correct information, but does not overwrite it (Ayers & Reder,

1998) . A source-memory account suggests that memory of the
original experience coexists with the misleading information; however, confusion arises as to the source of the information (Lindsay & Johnson, 1989).

Jacoby (1999) suggests that it is improbable that the false "I-told-you" claim is a function of memory alterations such as those suggested above. He maintains that it is probably a function of bias or guessing.

In other words, a false claim might occur only if people are unable to remember the original experience itself, and then resort to guessing. Acceptance of the false claim might rely on a person’s forgetting the original experience (the initial
phone call) and willingness to guess that the claim is valid. Thus, it may be that apparent memory impairment producing misinformation effects is due to forgetting and guessing rather than to real changes in the memory itself. Jacoby

(1999) has conducted a number of studies demonstrating this last alternative. He calls this phenomenon the accessibility bias that influences guessing (in this case, that the older adult did send the $1,200 check) and proposes that it is a basis of responding (sending the con artist a check for $950) independent of remembering.

faulty accessibility? This is discussed in the Current Controversies feature.

The importance of this area of research is in its implications for helping older adults form a coun­terattack for deceptions. For example, older adults can be trained to counter deception by refusing to respond unless they are certain that they can recol­lect what happened (Jacoby, 1999). Another strategy is to generate an alternative response to the first response that comes to mind, such as asking the con artist to return the earlier check before sending a new one (Jacoby, 1999).

Concept Checks

1. What are the relative age differences in encoding and retrieval?

2. What age differences have been found in the use of memory strategies?

3. How has recent evidence from brain scans affected our understanding of the relative importance of encoding and retrieval?

4. How do age differences compare in automatic versus deliberate retrieval?

5. How does processing of misinformation differ in older and younger adults?