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False memory study could change law enforcement interrogations

Individuals in Alabama may have heard of cases in which people confessed to crimes and later attempted to withdraw their confession. Sometimes, the accused person claims that police interrogation methods pushed them to confess. A recent study appears to support the idea that false memories of crimes never committed can be implanted in people’s minds.

The study was conducted on university students by researchers in Canada and the United Kingdom. First, the students’ caregivers were asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire about an incident in the students’ lives when they were between the ages of 11 and 14. The researchers then took information from the questionnaires, which the caregivers were asked not to discuss with the students, and talked to the students about two memories. One was real and one was invented, but the false story included factual details from the caregiver. Some of the students were given invented memories about committing a crime, and other memories were intended to evoke strong emotional connotations.

Over the next two sessions, students were asked to discuss the memories further. According to results of the study, about three-fourths of the students developed false memories based on what they were told in the first session. Researchers say that law enforcement may need to change some of their interrogation techniques to ensure that this does not happen during criminal investigations.

The study might also indicate that witnesses to crimes may not have reliable memories. For example, an individual might be accused of a burglary, and someone might claim to have seen the person fleeing the crime. However, as part of the individual’s defense, it might be possible to cast doubt on the witness’s account. During questioning in court, an attorney might be able to demonstrate that the account is inconsistent or lacks detail.