Most people experience distorted or false memories, often of long ago events, at some time or another. Indeed, psychologists have done thousands of studies showing ways in which our memories can get things wrong. There are many examples of false memories.
Harvard memory researcher Daniel Schacter relates the story of a woman who accused Dr. Donald Thompson of rape. Thompson, also a memory researcher, had been on television in a live interview just before the woman was raped. The woman, who had seen the program, "apparently confused her memory of him from the television screen with her memory of the rapist." 
Renowned child psychologist Jean Piaget told the story of his own false memory. He said that his earliest memory was of being kidnapped when he was two years old. He recalled sitting in his baby carriage and watching his nurse defend herself. He saw scratches on her face and a police officer chase the kidnapper away. Others in his family told the story and Piaget was sure it had happened. But it had not. Piaget’s former nurse wrote to his family more than a decade later that she had made up the story. Piaget wrote: "I therefore must have heard, as a child the account of this story...and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory, which was a memory of a memory, but false." 
As early as the 1930s, Frederic Bartlett reported on his studies in which he told people a folk tale from an unfamiliar culture and later asked them to recall it from memory. He observed that the memory errors people made were influenced by their own culturally determined expectations.
The website of the Exploratorium in San Francisco has an excellent introduction to some of the different kinds of things that can lead to false memories: Messing With Your Mind by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty.
Misattribution, misinformation, interference, imagination, inaccurate perception, and attention are some of the reasons that we make errors. Memory is prone to fallacy. Feeling confident is no guarantee that a particular memory is correct.
But How Could Someone Remember Something So Horrible as Sexual Abuse If It Didn’t Occur?
This is a haunting question. Several forces in our cultural climate nurture belief in the relationship between past sexual abuse and present individual pathology. This relationship is endlessly trumpeted in pop psychology books, on television talk shows, in the movies, and in novels. These forces prepare people to accept the possibility that they were victims.
After being nurtured by societal forces, the belief may be activated when a patient encounters a therapist who also believes that childhood sexual abuse explains most adult problems. When people enter therapy, they do so to get better. They want to change and they search for some explanation for their problems. Patients come to trust the person they have chosen to help them and they also tend to rely on the therapist's opinion. If the professional believes that a patient's problems result from past trauma and that the patient will not get better without remembering, naturally the patient will work to find what he or she thinks is a trauma memory in order to improve.
It Turns Out to Be Relatively Easy to Manipulate Human Memory.
In 1995, Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues embarked on a research program in which they demonstrated that it is quite easy to manipulate human memory. Loftus and Pickrell were able to implant a completely false memory of being lost in a mall when they were children in the minds of a significant number of adults. 
Family members of research subjects provided the researchers with stories about childhood experiences of the study participants.Four stories were presented to subjects, three of actual events and one story about a time that the subject was lost in a shopping mall. Researchers verified in advance that the subject was never lost in a shopping mall but they incorporated details about actual family shopping trips such as the name of the mall the family would usually go to when the person was a child.
The researchers told subjects that they were in a study looking at memory for childhood events and that they should try to remember as much as possible about each event. One quarter of the participants came to believe that they had been lost in a mall. You can see Elizabeth Loftus and part of this experiment at: View on YouTube
Other researchers have replicated the findings of this line of research and there is no question about the strength and accuracy of the findings.  As time passes, it gets more difficult for people to differentiate between what actually happened and what was imagined and they make memory errors.
Role of Photos in False Memories
Researcher Stephen Lindsay asked a group of college students if they remembered playing a prank on their first grade teacher - putting a gooy "Slime" in her desk.  Parents of the group gave the researchers two real events that they thought the students would remember, but said that the "slime" event never happened. The results were dramatic. Although 27.3 percent of the students without photos believed that they remembered the Slime story, 65.2 percent of those who were shown a picture of their class remember the false story.
This research is important in understanding how someone can come to believe in past abuse because many therapists used old family photographs to help their patients recall events. Researchers think that seeing the photo gives patients something for their imagination to work with. Even the most neutral photo with a smiling toddler on Dad’s lap can be construed negatively if a retrospective context is built up that invites abusive "memories."
Another line of research has explored the strength of imagination in false memory confidence. Garry, Manning and Loftus showed that asking someone to imagine an event increases confidence that it actually happened.  The researchers asked subjects about many possible childhood events, and if these events had happened to them as children, and how confident they were about it. Two weeks later, they asked them to imagine a few of these events and again presented the list of possible childhood events. After imagining an event, subjects were significantly more likely to be sure that it had happened to them. Sometimes therapists ask their patients to imagine the abuse events. This can increase their confidence that their new beliefs are true.
As Elizabeth Loftus has noted: "Once a patient believes past abuse may have happened, a therapist can strengthen that belief by "reinterpreting other events in patients’ lives in a negative way, or therapists may encourage the patients to read self-help books that tell them how to act and what to think. Patients may be advised to cut off contact with anyone who does not support the beliefs, thus eliminating any opportunity for alternative explanations. Another powerful reinforcer of such beliefs occurs during hospitalizations where patients may find themselves immersed in an environment in which everyone holds the same belief system. Because support groups offer acceptance of newly formed beliefs, patients may be urged to join them. Finally, some patients may cling to these abuse memories because they provide "an answer" for their psychological pain." 
1. Schacter, D. (1996). Searching for Memory. New York: Basic Books. p 114.
2. Tavris, C. (1993, January 3). Beware the incest-survivor machine. New York Times.
Retrieved from New York Times - Beware the Incest Survivor Machine on May 15, 2013.
3. Loftus, Elizabeth F. (1997, September). Creating false memories. Scientific American. Available at:
Creating False Memories
4. See Ceci, S.J., Huffman, M.L.C., Smith, E., and Loftus, E.F. (1994). Repeatedly thinking about a non-event: Source misattributions among preschoolers. Consciousness and Cognition, 3, 388-407. Ceci, S.J., Loftus, E.F., Leichtman, M.D., & Bruck, M. (1994). The possible role of source misattributions in the creation of false beliefs among preschoolers. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, Volume XLII, p. 304-320. Hyman I.E., Husband T.H., Billings F.J. (1995). False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9, 181-197.
5. Lindsay, D.S., Hagen, L. Read, J. Don, Wade, K. Garry, M. ( 2004). True photographs and false memories. Psychological Science, 15 (3), 149-54.
Garry, M, Manning C, Loftus E (1996). Imagination inflation: Imagining a childhood events inflates confidence that it occurred. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3 (2), 208-214. Available at: Imagination Inflation
7. Loftus, Elizabeth F. (2010, November 18). Make-Believe Memories. American Psychologist. Available at: Make-Believe Memories
Last Updated: December 4, 2013
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