Implanting false memories can be easier than it might seem.
A new study, conducted by forensic psychology professors Steven Porter from UBC-O and Julia Shaw from the University of Berdfordshire, shows that people who have not committed crimes can still be led to admitting that they had through the implantation of false memories.
In the study, participants received two memories, one true, based on a questionnaire filled out by their parents and one fabricated, over a series of three interviews. The students were asked to describe both events to the best of their ability, even if they couldn’t remember them.
In the first interview, the researchers would describe details about two memories from the participant's youth -- one real and one fabricated -- using guided imagery and details such as names of their best friends or schools that they attended. Some of the participants received a false memory of them committing a crime such as theft or assault while others received a false memory of a different kind.
In the second and third interviews, participants were asked to remember the two events. The results showed that 71 per cent of people who had received details of the fake crime recalled it as though it had actually happened.
Porter said that the results came as a shock even to the researchers themselves.
“We were quite astonished by the rate of memories that we got, we weren’t expecting anywhere close to 70 per cent of people that came to recall and confess to these pretty serious offences that had never occurred," said Porter.
According to Porter, this type of research shows that people will often confess to something that they did not do when they are prompted to do so by an authority.
"My suspicion is that if we continued on [with] maybe four or five interviews and sink even more pressure within the interviews, perhaps everyone or almost everyone would be vulnerable," said Porter. "I think that most or all of us in the right circumstances could come to generate a confession, which is pretty scary.”
Porter also works closely with Canadian law enforcement, consulting and testifying in cases regarding the possibility of falsified memories and validity of confessions. He said that the investigation techniques currently used by the RCMP to find out whether someone had committed a crime can similarly lead to false confessions.
“Some of the techniques that are used within this strategy are quite psychologically manipulative,” said Porter. “I think we really have to start looking hard at the kinds of techniques that are being used in police interviews, and whether we ought to change the rules about what can and can’t be asked and used in these interviews.”
According to Porter, police officers are allowed to lie outright to interrogation subjects, in some cases saying they have failed a polygraph test when they have actually passed. One of the problems with the system is that officers are often taught to assume guilt and try to produce a confession through any means, said Porter.
“We really need to be looking at the types of questioning they’re allowed to use, whether or not they should be allowed to deceive suspects at all, just because we really have no idea how often this kind of thing happens,” said Porter.