People who actually notice that the misinformation is inconsistent with
the original event have better memory for the event compared with people
who never saw the misinformation in the first place, revealed a new study published in Psychological Science,
a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Exposure to false information about an event usually makes it more difficult for people to recall the original details, but this new research suggests that there may be times when misinformation actually boosts memory.
‘The relationship between misinformation and memory is more complex than we might have thought - mere exposure to misinformation doesn't automatically cue the misinformation effect.’
"Our experiments show that misinformation can sometimes enhance
memory rather than harm it," says psychological scientist Adam Putnam of
Carleton College, lead author of the research. "These findings are
important because they help explain why misinformation effects occur
sometimes but not at other times - if people notice that the
misinformation isn't accurate then they won't have a false memory."
In their first experiment, Putnam and colleagues had 72
undergraduate participants view six slide shows, each of which contained
50 photos portraying a particular event. After looking through the
slide shows, the participants completed an unrelated "distractor" task
for about five minutes and then read narrative descriptions for each
slide in the previous slide shows.
For example, if the slide showed a thief finding $1 bills in a car,
the description might be consistent (e.g., "He examined the bills, and
saw they were all $1 bills"), neutral (e.g., "He examined the bills and
saw they were all US currency"), or inconsistent (e.g., "He examined the
bills and saw that they were all $20 bills") with the slide show.
After reading the descriptions and completing another distractor
task, the participant then answered multiple-choice questions about what
they remembered from the original slide shows, such as "What kind of
bills were in the car?" The responses included a correct option ($1
bills), an incorrect option with misinformation from the narrative ($20
bills), or a different incorrect option ($5 bills). After making their
selection, participants reported whether they had noticed any
discrepancies between the original slide show and the narratives.
True to a general misinformation effect, people were most likely to
choose the misinformation response when the detail in the narrative was
inconsistent with the slide show.
But when participants reported remembering a change between the
slide shows and the narrative, this deficit disappeared: Participants
were more likely to select the correct response after seeing
misinformation compared with seeing a neutral detail.
And when they reported that the narrative had contradicted the slide, participants were less
likely to select the incorrect misinformation response for details that
were inconsistent in the narrative compared with those that were
Although exposure to misinformation seemed to impair memory for the
correct detail, detecting and remembering misinformation in the
narrative seemed to improve participants' recognition later on.
A second experiment produced similar results, and additional
analyses showed that how memorable a detail was seemed to make a
difference. Details that were less memorable, relatively speaking, were
more vulnerable to the misinformation effect.
These findings suggest that the relationship between misinformation
and memory is more complex than we might have thought - mere exposure
to misinformation doesn't automatically cue the misinformation effect.
"Classic interference theory in memory suggests that change is
almost always bad for memory, but our study is one really clear example
of how change can help memory in the right circumstances," Putnam
"People may learn about false memory research and walk away thinking
that false memories can easily be implanted about all sorts of events -
that we're constantly remembering things that never happened," says
Putnam. "Our research helps in showing that although false memories can
occur with some regularity, it isn't a sure thing by any means."