Positive Consequences of False Memories

Topic: Cognitive Psychology
Words: 1805 Pages: 6


Memory study is one of the main lines of inquiry for cognitive psychology. Cherry (2020b) defines memory as “the processes that are used to acquire, store, retain, and later retrieve information” (What Is Memory section, para. 1). On the other hand, false memory implies incorrect, fabricated, or distorted information acquired by individuals (Cherry, 2020a). Various factors may cause the creation of false memories, notably trauma, disinformation, mental illness, etc. While there are numerous types of research on false memories, their causes, and their negative impact, few studies focus on the beneficial aspects of false memory. Howe, Garner, et al. (2013) conducted such a study exploring the positive consequences of false memories. The current paper summarizes and critiques the study, analyzing its theory, basis, structure, methods used, and results.

Overview of the Study

British psychologists conducted the study in question in 2013. They hypothesize that “memory illusions might have a less sinister, perhaps more positive, effect than what has typically been attributed to them” (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013, p. 661). The notion that the majority of previous studies on the topic focus on the negative consequences is reasonably accurate (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013). Although some researchers in the mid-late 2000s have addressed the benefits of false memories, they have been mostly considered negative or neutral experiences.

Even recent psychological studies more frequently concern what makes individuals predisposed to false memories rather than the impacts on human life. Howe, Garner, et al. (2013) note that the reason for this is much demand in the legal sphere for such research. The popular inquiry is how mental conditions such as depression, PTSD, Alzheimer’s disease, or schizophrenia affect false memory production (Otgaar, et al., 2017; Fairfield, Colangelo, et al., 2017; Fairfield, Altamura, et al., 2016). Other researchers explore how moods and strong emotions such as hope, fear, happiness, and sadness are connected to false memory (Bookbinder & Brainerd, 2016; Kaplan et al., 2016). As a result, the study by Howe and colleagues is unique and relevant as it fills the gap in positive aspects of false memory using an experimental approach.

Theoretical Part and Justification

The theoretical part of the study summarizes views on the topic and related research. This part mainly presents questions answered by other studies and what new questions Howe and colleagues address with their experiment. The researchers justify the study by stating that they “provide a different perspective on false memories and their development and demonstrate that false memories can have positive consequences” (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013, p. 652). To prove that, Howe, Garner, et al. (2013) allocate who has already argued about the possible beneficial effect of false memory, mentioning Howe (2011), Schacter, Guerin, & St. Jacques (2011), and Nairne (2010). The researchers then discuss the memory advantages of survival processing, namely its correlation with item-specific and relational memory. Howe, Garner, et al. (2013) note that “false memory rates should be low” in survival processing (p. 653). However, if the processing concerns concepts interrelated with other conceptions, the latter may become active and stimulate false memory generation (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013). As such, the authors establish their experiment’s thematic orientation, which is survival-related material.

In the second half of the theoretical part, the researchers further expand on survival processing. Howe, Garner, et al. (2013) note a series of experiments conducted by Howe and Derbish (2010). Researchers gave participants a list of survival and non-survival-related words revolving around an unprecedented word. Then they asked the participants to recall the list and most remembered the unpresented word (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013). This procedure is called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) task. Deese created the task in 1959 specifically for “studying false memory in the laboratory”, while Roediger and McDermott revitalized it in 1995 (Pardilla-Delgado & Payne, 2017, p. 1; Arnould, 2021). To date, cognitive psychology utilizes the DRM lists in experimental research on false memory (Rosenstreich, 2016). The experiments described above showed that there is a connection between memory, processing, and the material processed.

Howe and colleagues conclude the theoretical part with a discussion of their experiment. They stipulate that “incidental memory tasks” used by prior studies may be inferior to intentional memory tasks and thus downgrade accuracy (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013, p. 654). Therefore, the researchers address two questions at once by using intentional memory tasks and survival-related associative material contrasted with neutral associative material. First, they manage to what extent usage of incidental recollection differs from intentional remembering and whether studying survival-related information benefits children’s memory (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013). Second, the existence or non-existence of adaptive (beneficial) consequences due to false memory generation when studying associative materials (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013). The discussion ends with observations regarding the DRM paradigm and the compound remote associates test (CRAT) used in prior studies as well as the current study. Similar to the DRM task, CRAT presents an associative list of words that a linking word can solve. However, CRAT is mostly applicable to the research on problem-solving and creativity (Marsh, et al., 2021). Howe and colleagues use CRAT to explore how false memory affects problem-solving.

Experimental Part and Results

The study describes participants, design, materials, and procedure in much detail. Howe, Garner, et al. (2013) carried out an experiment involving sixty (60) participants, thirty (30) of which were children aged 11 and the other thirty (30) were adults aged 18. Additionally, the sex ratio was 50:50 in each group, but gender was removed from the analysis because it did not have any effect on the experiment (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013). DRM lists were utilized to stimulate false memory generation, and CRATs were applied to allocate adaptive consequences involving survival-related information as well as the advantageous effects of false memory. The researchers used sixteen DRM lists, each containing ten associates for the critical lures corresponding to the solutions of sixteen three-word CRATs (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013). Half of the DRM lists and CRATs were neutral, while the other half was survival-related. Each participant got four neutral and four survival CRATs to solve while they had listened to only four corresponding DRM lists (two neutral and two survival) (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013). This uneven separation enabled the researchers to compare problem-solving with false recollection and without.

As a result of the experiment, the authors have been able to show two correlations: (1) recollection versus age and material type and (2) solution rates versus age, false/true memory, and material type. Overall, adults recalled more listed words than children, although children had fewer false recollections. As Howe, Garner, et al. (2013) have expected, survival-related material enhanced both true and false recollection. Similar findings have been made regarding CRA tests’ solution rates. Age did not play a significant role, albeit adults solved CRATs faster, whereas false memory significantly improved solution rates with a noticeable gap between neutral and survival material (Howe, Garner, et al., 2013). Howe, Garner, et al. (2013) discuss how this gap has been nearly non-existent for true recollection and unprimed DRM lists and how solution rates for both categories were the same.

Review of the Study

The research is well-structured, presenting ideas sequentially and connecting them to the experiment. Nevertheless, it may be hard to follow some of the ideas without familiarizing myself with the cited and other theoretical material. The study is a continuation of research conducted by Howe and his associates and often presumes that the reader has an understanding of the majority of included terms and concepts. Nash and Ost (2016) note how memory is not “common sense” as the public often has wrong interpretations of the topic (para. 1). Footnotes or definitions would improve the paper’s clarity making it more reader-friendly, thus addressing the wider community. The second addition that would benefit the theoretical part would be a more detailed overview of the negative consequences of false memories or how they affect daily human life. There are numerous studies on repercussions that follow the development of memory illusions, for example, that false memories can guide the planning of future events (Laney & Loftus, 2016; Dewhurst et al., 2019). Such an addition could help build a better understanding of the study’s place in the field and its significance.

The experiment is useful for cognitive psychology as it provides new data on false memory, and the results present sufficient analysis using statistics, four graphs, and one table. However, the application of the study outside the laboratory remains unclear. Howe and colleagues do not provide any suggestions on that in the discussion. Nash et al. (2016) explored the question of ethics concerning the stimulation of false memory creation to promote a healthy mentality, but most of the studies, currently discussed study included, do not address this topic. Other than that, the discussion revolves around results drawing a parallel with other similar research, mostly by Howe and his associates. The conclusions mirror the results of the paper with additional observations on survival information and problem-solving. In the end, Howe, Garner, et al. (2013) state that false memories have positive or negative consequences depending on their later usage. Unfortunately, the discussion does not involve a direct comparison of obtained statistical data with statistical data from previous studies. It would make the conclusions more justified as the authors compare their findings using intentional remembering with findings of the studies that used incidental memory tasks.

It seems that Howe and colleagues planned to conduct more research on the topic in the future as there are a couple of subsequent studies. For example, in a more recent study, Howe, Wilkinson, et al. (2016) continue developing a positive approach to false memories, namely that memory illusion has adaptive consequences regardless of age. Additionally, the article by Howe, Threadgold, et al. (2016) on False and distorted memories summarizes the findings on the topic. As a result, Positive Consequences of False Memories is part of a set of studies deriving from each other and using similar methods. As the methods are well-organized and there are examples of DRM lists and CRATs, other researchers can use the study to adjust the experiment to their work. Consequently, mentioned studies by Howe et al. advance the field of cognitive psychology and suggest a positive approach in the theoretical context of false memory.


Positive Consequences of False Memories is experimental research conducted by British psychologist Howe, Garner, et al. in 2013. The study explores the correlation between false memories, age, type of material, and problem-solving. It emphasizes the positive aspects of false memory but does not include the application of its findings. Although the study is well-structured and its methods are thorough, its target audience is limited to psychology researchers due to the complexity of its language and concepts. The methods can be easily applied to other studies, and there is a significant capacity for deriving more research.


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