The Misinformation Effect

By Omair Taibah • 08/07/2013

Today’s article talks about an effect that happens within the human brain. This effect is called the misinformation effect. It affects how our memories work. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Misinformation Effect directly affects memory

Misinformation Effect directly affects memory

Popular belief says that we replay our memories like a movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every time you remember something, you build up your memory from scratch. Which makes memory permeable to your present self’s influence! Memory is not like a movie you replay. It’s more like pieces of Lego you build.


Let us imagine the following scenario. You are in a high school reunion and you’re telling a story. You tell how you created an elaborate prank on one of your fellow students; everyone is laughing. Suddenly, your high school best friend interrupts and says “Come on, man! That was me. You weren’t even in on this prank”. Then your best friend goes on to tell the same story from his memory. You both try to remember more details for conclusive evidence of whom had done what. You both fail. What happened there? That is what’s called misinformation effect. Maybe it is a little extreme but bear with us.


How many times has someone told a story that conflicts with how you remember it? Don’t answer that but answer this: Have you ever seen a movie and have been able to to recall every single detail and every single line of dialogue an hour later? Then, how do you expect to remember the details of the movie of your life? To be sure, you’re not forgetting what happened. You are just rebuilding and altering your memory to make more sense for your present self.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

Researchers have constructed experiments on how memory works. For example, Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, wrote in a book about a patient who had a brain injury. After the injury, he couldn’t see color and, as a result, he couldn’t even imagine colors or remember them. Memories the patient made before his injury have become drained of colors. The same memories which were made when he could see colors.


Not only you remember things differently every time, it is very easy for someone to implant something in your memory. A group of psychologists made the following experiment. They gathered students with secret actors (who will manipulate memories) and showed them various household locations. Later, they paired each student with an actor and asked each pairing to recall items in the pictures. The actors job was to implant things that weren’t present in the pictures. For example, a pair of scissors in the living room. All the lists the student have made included items that weren’t there in the pictures. Because the actors suggested things that make sense to the students, they were able to convince them that they existed. However, if the actors suggested a bed in a bathroom it would’ve been too far fetched. Psychologists concluded that memories are built to make sense in a certain situation and not to be accurate. Needless to say, different variations of this experiment were conducted in different parts of the world.


Another research showed that every memory changes a little over time. A researcher asked each member of a family to rewrite an incident once every few months and send them to him. He noticed that over a course of a few years each story changed slowly and in different directions. It is very easy for a memory to be tainted considering the constant flow of thoughts, emotions and comments from yourself, family, friends and all the media. We build our memories for our current selves convenience because it’s easier for the brain to patch memories up than store everything accurately.


There are hundreds of experiments that have shown how memories aren’t accurate. The scariest part of this field of research is how do we know what’s truth and what’s fiction. Now imagine what a witness in the stand can say in their testimony. Moreover, if we know that even the best of us don’t have accurate memories, how can we judge people for telling the truth or not? What if you decided to write an autobiography? Would you be accurate? The only way to be accurate is to see a video or hear a recording of what really happened. Maybe it’s a good idea to start keeping a diary for future autobiography reference.

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1) “You Are Not so Smart” By David McRaney

2) “The Island of the Colorblind” By Oliver Sacks

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