A new psychological experiment exposes the ease with which people can be made to confess to crimes they never committed, say scientists.
As part of the study, conducted by researchers from the University of Bedfordshire in the UK and Canada's University of British Columbia, primary caregivers were asked about the lives of 60 students between the ages of 11 and 14 taking part in the study .
Armed with the information, psychologists told students about their childhoods during the period, with more than 70% of those participating forming false memories as a result.
"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," says psychological scientist and lead researcher Julia Shaw of the University of Bedfordshire in the UK.
In the interviews, psychologists told the students about two events in their youth, one real and one fictional. When students struggled to recall the fictional event, psychologists suggested that if they used specific memory strategies they would be able to recall more.
"In such circumstances, inherently fallible and reconstructive memory processes can quite readily generate false recollections with astonishing realism. In these sessions we had some participants recalling incredibly vivid details and re-enacting crimes they never committed," said Shaw.
Of the 30 students who were asked to recall a crime they had not committed, 21 went on to develop a false memory of the event. Some were able to describe both violent crimes and subsequent dealings with police in detail, though they never occurred.
Explaining the rationale of the study, the author's 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."
"By empirically demonstrating the harm 'bad' interview techniques – those which are known to cause false memories – can cause, we can more readily convince interviewers to avoid them and to use 'good' techniques instead," Shaw concluded.