False Memories and Behavior

Nov 12, 08 False Memories and Behavior

A review of:

Geraerts, E., Bernstein, D.M., Merckelbach, H., Linders, C., Raymaekers, L., & Loftus, E.F. (2008). Lasting false beliefs and their behavioral consequences. Psychological Science, 19, 749-753.
by Micol Levi-Minzi

In this article Geraerts, et al. (2008) sought to examine the relationship between false memories and long-lasting changes in behavior. The authors cite examples of false memories such as satanic ritual abuse, previous lives and space alien abduction all of which can greatly impact an individual’s behaviors. Geraerts et al. (2008) suggest that misleading information or even suggestive techniques used in therapy may be the source of these false beliefs. While some research shows that false memories may impact attitudes and beliefs, no research has been conducted on the influence of false beliefs on long-lasting behavioral changes. In this study, the authors question if this link exists. More specifically, Geraerts et al. (2008) hypothesize that by falsely suggesting to participants that they had experienced a negative event specific to a particular food item in their past, long term changes would occur in how participants behaved in regard to that food item. The independent variable in this investigation was the false belief that the researchers suggested to the participants. Consequently, the dependent variable was the level of change in behavior in response to the false belief. The study utilized 180 participants who were screened so as to exclude those with eating disorders. The participants were first-year undergraduate students from a university who were then randomly assigned to either a control group or a false belief group.

The study spanned three different sessions with each participant. In the first sessions participants were asked to complete a food history inventory that asked whether or not specific events had occurred to them. Also administered was a food preference questionnaire and a questionnaire that asked subjects to rank their likelihood of consuming specific foods if they were at a party. During the second meeting participants were given false information. The false information was given under the guise that their previously filled-out questionnaires had been entered into a computer and the computer had generated a profile for them. The participants were told that they had become ill when they had consumed egg salad during childhood. Subsequently, participants were asked to fill out the same three questionnaires from the first session as well as a memory-belief questionnaire containing three items from the food history inventory, one of which was egg salad. The second session ended with a debriefing conducted by a researcher, who did not know anything about the groups. The participants were thanked for being in the study by being offered three different types of sandwiches, one of which was egg-salad. The researcher recorded the types of sandwiches consumed.

The final session was held four months later under the semblance of a completely unrelated research study. Of the 180 original participants, 153 participated in session three. Participants were told to taste test of a variety of foods and liquids, one of which was egg salad. They were asked to complete filler questionnaires as well as the three original questionnaires that had been modified so as to not remind the participants of the previously completed questionnaires. At the end of the experiment researchers revealed the true purpose of the sessions. Also, participants were asked to check with their parents as to whether or not they did in fact have a negative egg-salad event during childhood.

Results from the study indicate that false memories can indeed induce both immediate and long-lasting behavior changes. Geraerts et al. (2008) found that a small percentage of the participants in this study changed their eating behavior in regard to egg salad both immediately and four months later. The link may have resounding effects in the legal world given that false memories have recently become a critical issue in many cases, specifically those involving child abuse. This new found link between false memories and behavior changes must be explored further with more research because of its potential impacts in both the world of psychology and law.

To cite this review, please use this reference:
Levi-Minzi, M. (2008). False Memories and Behavior. Psychology Alert (2).