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Be Careful What You Ask For…You Just Might Get It!

February 12, 2015  By Kirk Luther and Brent Snook

814 words – MR

Science BEAT

Be Careful What You Ask For…You Just Might Get It!
816 words – MR

The Risk of Creating False Memories


by Kirk Luther and Brent Snook

It has been a while since the last installment of but we wanted to share a just published study that has garnered quite a bit of media attention.

The study is titled and its findings are very important for investigative interviewers, and others working in the criminal justice system. The results solidify what researchers and many practitioners have known for a long time – memory is malleable to pressure, and people will confess to a crime that they did not commit. In fact, it seems that after a couple of pressured filled interviews, people can provide rich details to accompany their confession.

The research, carried out by Dr. Julia Shaw and Dr. Stephen Porter, was conducted to determine if university students would be able to recall details of a criminal activity that they supposedly committed as a young adolescent. Specifically, the researchers wanted to test the effect that various interviewing techniques would have on students recalling information about a crime that they did not actually commit (that is, creating a false memory).

Prior to the study, the researchers sent a questionnaire to the students’ caregivers to obtain information they could use during their interviews (e.g., the name of the student’s friends, where they were living at the time). For their study, students were interviewed about a true memory and a false memory during three separate 40-minute interview – each occurred a week apart. During each interview, students were first asked to recall the details of a true memory (as provided by the caregiver), followed by a false memory of committing a crime (the students were told that this came from their caregiver as well).

In the first interview, none of the students were able to provide information about the false criminal event. Over the course of the remaining interviews however, the interviewer engendered memory distrust by using a trusted source (that is, telling the student that the caregiver said the event happened) and a suggestive interviewing technique (such as visualization and guided imagery).

The interviewer also suggested that it is normal not to remember events from such a long time ago, but if they worked hard to visualize it, their memories would come back to them. By the end of the third interview, 70 per cent of the participants had false memories of a criminal event that resulted in police contact. The students provided between 50 and 90 false details, such as a physical description of the police officer. Interestingly, the content of the false memories were very similar to the content of the true memories (e.g., similar proportion of visual details).

The take away message from this research is that interviewers should manage eyewitness memory with the same philosophy that investigators use to manage a crime scene – namely, “do not move anything.” Interviewing is an extremely complex skill and interviewers must be careful that their words do not alter memories, and ultimately, destroy evidence.

Interviewers also have to be very cautious about the interviewing techniques they use. The aforementioned study shows that interviewers should avoid pressure to remember and using suggestive tactics such as false evidence (or implying non-existent evidence exists), guided imagery, leading questions and drip-feeding information during an interview.

This research also has implications for deception detection research. The researchers found that the visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile sensory components did not differ significantly between the true and false memories. Ultimately, these findings show that it is difficult to determine whether a suspect is lying (i.e., providing a false memory) because the difference from telling the truth (i.e., providing a true memory) is nominal.

Note. A Google search using the term “Misinformation Effect” will produce a wealth of information on this phenomenon that will be of interest to investigative interviewers.


Shaw, J., & Porter, S. (2015). Constructing rich false memories of committing crime. Psychological science, Advance Online Version, doi:10.1177/0956797614562862


Kirk Luther is a Ph.D. candidate at Memorial University. His research interests include false and coerced confessions; interrogation tactics; child interviewing practices; and distinguishing between science and pseudoscience in law enforcement. Kirk has published several articles within these areas, and has presented at both national and international conferences. His research has garnered international media attention and numerous national awards.

Brent Snook is Professor of Psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He holds a PhD in Psychology from The University of Liverpool, UK. His research interests include decision-making, forensic psychology, investigative practices (e.g., interviewing) and pseudoscience in the criminal justice system. In addition to the implementation of PEACE in Canada, his current body of work involves how people understand their legal rights and refining the effectiveness of the various components comprising the PEACE model of interviewing.

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