Misinformation and Memory
The fact that older adults exhibit the false-fame effect to a greater degree than younger adults suggests that although familiarity is intact, conscious recollection is not, thus allowing familiarity to misinform the older adult’s performance. Two other recent areas of research have further explored older adults’ susceptibility to misinformation due to memory deficits: source memory and false memory.
Source Memory. One perspective on the false-fame effect is to consider it a function of deficient source monitoring. Source memory refers to the ability to remember the source of a familiar event as well as the ability to determine if an event was imagined or actually experienced (Mitchell & Johnson, 2000; Schacter et al., 1998). For example, it is important
206 CHAPTER 6
Accurate memory for events becomes particularly important when older adults serve on juries.
for an older adult to be able to discriminate whether she actually remembered to take her medication or only thought to do it. The ability to discriminate between these two events necessitates that one is able to retrieve information about the context in which the event in question originally occurred. By reconstructing the original event accurately, the older adult will remember whether she actually took the medication or not.
Research on age differences in source memory reveals that older adults are less accurate at a number of source-memory tasks (Mitchell et al., 2003; Schacter et al., 1997; Simons, Dodson, Bell, & Schacter, 2004). For example, in one study (Simons et al., 2004), younger and older adults heard sentences that were read by one of four speakers (male or female). At the same time they viewed the written sentences and photos of the speakers. In a later surprise test, they were asked to distinguish between old and new sentences. Although there were no age differences in distinguishing between the old and new sentences, older adults were less able to identify the speakers of the presented sentences. The conclusion was that older adults have most difficulty in remembering the source (voices and faces) associated with the sentences.
We can relate this type of finding back to the role retrieval cues play in older adults’ memory functioning. In a recent review, Old and Naveh-Benjamin
(2008) suggest that contextual details can serve as retrieval cues and that without access to them older adults may have more difficulty in remembering events. Furthermore, episodic memory is more highly dependent upon contextual information, which could explain why older adults have difficulties with that kind of task.
There are cases, however, where older adults do not show source-memory problems. For example, older adults showed poor performance at detecting whether a male or female made an earlier statement, but they performed as well as younger adults when the task was more emotional in nature, such as whether a speaker was evil or good (Rahhal et al., 2002). This relates to the idea that older adults perform a cognitive task better when it involves more emotionally salient material. We will explore this later in Chapter 8.
False Memory. Another line of research that examines misinformation effects in older adults is false memory. False memory is when one remembers items or events that did not occur. Here the focus is on memory errors. False memory is typically studied by presenting participants with a list of words that are all associated with a specific word that was not presented. So, for example, the experimenter presents the words nurse, hospital, patient, and surgery for the participant to study. At recall, she adds words such as doctor that did not appear on the original list, yet are semantically related to the list of words. People tend to falsely recall and incorrectly recognize such a target word (e. g., doctor) and feel very confident about it (Roediger & McDermott, 2000). Older adults tend to show an even greater degree of false memories under such conditions (Benjamin, 2001; Jacoby & Rhodes, 2006; Karpel et al., 2001).
Once again, an explanation for this effect is that older adults have more difficulty in correctly identifying information as false because they have trouble linking content information to its context (Dehon & Bredart, 2004; Smith, Lozito, & Bayen, 2005). In fact, when older adults are warned in advance to examine the origin of the information presented, the false-memory effect is reduced (i. e., educating them about the phenomenon reduces the false- memory effect) (Dehon & Bredart, 2004; McCabe & Smith, 2002). Furthermore, a cognitive neuroscience approach to this kind of misinformation effect shows that older adults with lower frontal lobe functioning are particularly susceptible to false memories (Roediger & Geraci, 2007).
Both false memory and source memory have been investigated together in the context of falsely identifying a familiar but innocent bystander in a criminal lineup. For example, in a typical study, older and younger adults are shown photographs of perpetrators and then a series of mug shots of innocent bystanders. A week later, in a lineup containing both the bystanders and perpetrators, older adults were worse at picking out the perpetrator. This deficit was related to older adults’ difficulties in remembering the context in which they observed the photographs (Memon et al., 2003). Interestingly, this inaccuracy during the lineup was not evident for older adults if they observed older instead of younger faces (Perfect & Harris, 2003). Other ways to help older adults suppress the false-memory effect is to make the new information more distinctive (Dodson & Schacter, 2002).
From a practical, everyday perspective, the misinformation effects in older adults we’ve reviewed, including the false-fame effect, source-memory deficits, and false memories, could render older adults more susceptible to deception, as in consumer scams. In fact, Larry Jacoby (1999) suggests that the elderly are targets for fraudulent practices because of misinformation effects and aging. For example, Jacoby (1999) describes a typical scam perpetrated by con artists who telephone seniors to talk with them and surreptitiously gather as much personal information on them as possible. In a later callback, the con artist asks questions based on the previously gathered personal information and determines whether the older adult fails to remember the previous conversation. If so, the memory deficit is exploited with a false claim: “We received a check from you for $1,200 but it should have only been $950. Please send us another check for $950 and we will send the original check back to you.” Of course, no check was sent earlier. Jacoby calls this the “I-told-you” claim. The controversial issue is how do we explain this memory deficit? Is it a false memory, faulty source monitoring, or
Attention and Memory 207