People can easily create false memories of their past and such memories can have long-term effects on their behaviour, a new study says.
In the study, psychologists Elke Geraerts of the University of St. Andrews and Maastricht University, Daniel Bernstein of Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the University of Washington, Harald Merckelbach, Christel Linders, and Linsey Raymaekers of Maastricht University, and Elizabeth F. Loftus of University of California, Irvine, found that human memory can be remarkably fragile and even inventive.
In a series of experiments, the researchers falsely suggested that participants had become ill after eating egg salad as a child.
Later, the researchers offered different kinds of sandwiches to the participants, including ones with an egg salad filling.
Four months later, the participants were asked to be in a separate study in which they evaluated egg salad as well as other foods.
They were then given the same kinds of sandwiches that had been offered to them four months earlier.
Participants who were told they had become ill as a child after eating egg salad showed a distinct change in attitudes and behaviour towards this food after the experiment.
They not only gave the food lower evaluations than participants who did not develop false memories or were in the control group, but they also avoided egg salad sandwiches more than any of the other participants four months later.
The researchers said that the results 'clearly demonstrate that false suggestions about childhood events can profoundly change people's attitudes and behaviour.'
According to the researchers, these findings have significant implications for the authenticity of reports of recovered memory experiences.
While previous research indicates that spontaneously recovered memories may reflect real memories of abuse, there is no such evidence for abuse memories recovered through suggestive therapy.
The study might also influence obesity treatments and dieting choices. The researchers suggest that it may be possible for people to learn to avoid certain foods by believing they had negative experiences with the food as a child.
Overall, this study clearly demonstrates that false suggestions about childhood events can profoundly change people's attitudes and behaviour.
The study is published in the August issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.