A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of Association of Psychological Science, proves that if you have enough information about a person’s past, you can easily manipulate them into confessing a crime they haven’t committed.
Conducted by scientists from Britain's University of Bedfordshire and Canada's University of British Columbia, this research was based on a series of questionnaires and "friendly" interviews.
At first, the researchers asked primary caregivers of 60 university students to fill in a survey that featured questions about their past – specifically between the ages 11 and 14. Once the desired information was obtained, three 40-minute interviews were held with these participants.
During the first round, the psychologists asked the subjects about two events from their past years: one real and one fictional. When the students had trouble recalling the fictional event, the researchers helped them summon the memory with the help of some "specific memory-retrieval strategies." These strategies involved false proofs and false imagery, which eventually tricked the subjects into believing they had actually experienced these events.
During the second and third interview, the same questions were repeated, and students were asked to recall the details of the events. The researchers then asked them to tell as much as they could remember about both (fictional, non-fictional) events.
The results were incredibly bizarre.
As it turned out, by the end of the interviews, 70 percent of the students had false memories of committing a non-criminal or a criminal activity – as serious as theft, assault and assault by weapon – in their adolescent years. Not only that, they could also describe them in great detail.
“Our findings show that false memories of committing crime with police contact can be surprisingly easy to generate, and can have all the same kinds of complex details as real memories,” said lead researcher Julia Shaw.
Justifying the study, the authors wrote, "Understanding that these complex false memories exist, and that 'normal' individuals can be led to generate them quite easily, is the first step in preventing them from happening."