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Lost in the mall and other false memories

How accurate are your memories? Many experiments, from the séance room to the psychology lab, have shown just how vulnerable our memories can be, both to the passage of time and, more worryingly, to manipulation from others.

Words by A R Hopwoodaverage reading time 7 minutes

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Pixellated photograph from a shopping mall security camera, where all adults have been crudely 'Photoshopped' out of the image, leaving one remaining child. The image has a red/pink tone applied to it.
False memory archive: Crudely erased adults (lost in the mall). © A R Hopwood.

One of my earliest memories is being with my mum in a large shopping centre in my home town at about the age of five. As we were about to get on to the escalator to go back down to the ground floor, I lost my grip on her hand. As my poor, horrified mother made her way down the moving staircase I stood there frozen at the top, bawling my eyes out.

She shouted up to tell me to stay where I was and that she’d be back up straight away, but I was lucky that the shop security guard heard the commotion and then helped me down the escalator to my dear mum. The whole experience took only a few seconds, but it’s a mildly upsetting memory that has stayed with me for ever.

Now I come to think of it, it may have actually happened in our local bank and not a shopping mall. Hang on a minute – I’m not entirely sure if it was the security guard that helped me back to see her. Perhaps it was an old lady carrying one of those old-fashioned shopping trolleys. Or an old man? Or did my mum run the wrong way back up the escalator and gather me back up in her arms? Was I actually with my mum? Or was it my dad? The only thing I know for sure was that something vaguely similar happened. Didn’t it?

Magic, memories and malobservations

In 1887, psychical researcher Richard Hodgson and expert conjurer S J Davey weren’t looking to prove or disprove the existence of spirit communication, like many of their contemporaries. They were exploring something far more profound: the fallible nature of human memory and observation. To do this, they used trickery to deceive their unwitting experimental participants.

It had been noted by one of the founders and most experienced members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Eleanor Sidgwick, that recollections from séances could be “defective or misdirected”, so Hodgson and Davey set out to test if this was really the case.

A "spirit photograph" which Dr Hodgson had taken in order to show that a face may be made to appear over jewellery.

For the experiment, they invited members of the public to a series of private séances, where they witnessed messages and symbols mysteriously appearing on chalk slates. Unbeknownst to them, Davey was using his conjuring skills to produce the phenomena. At the end of each performance the participants were asked to provide written accounts of everything they’d just seen. 

What was clear from the accounts collected from 17 different sittings over several months was that attendees often had wildly different recollections of the experience and that key events had been misremembered. Perhaps most tellingly, participants also didn’t notice (or didn’t see) Davey moving his slate underneath the table where it was swapped for another and placed back on the surface – the move was somehow hidden in plain sight, in an early documented example of inattentional blindness.

Our observations and memories may not be as reliable as we think they are, particularly in emotional settings where the unexpected happens.

Hodgson and Davey’s deceptive experiments had illustrated that Sidgwick’s hunch was right – that our observations and memories may not be as reliable as we think they are, particularly in emotional settings where the unexpected happens. 

This extraordinary set of experiments was for a while considered something of a footnote in the history of the SPR. But they have recently been claimed by a number of experimental psychologists as a precursor to some of the most insightful memory research that has emerged over the last 30 years.

Remembering a fiction

Professor Elizabeth Loftus perhaps inadvertently owes a lot to Hodgson and Davey. Over a series of carefully crafted memory experiments between 1974 and 1979 she successfully illustrated that ‘false’ memories of events can easily develop if witnesses of an incident are asked leading questions, or if false information is provided to a witness by an authority figure after the event has taken place.

Her discovery of this ‘misinformation effect’ continues to have a major impact on the legal profession; however, such landmark developments were only made possible by Loftus using deception in her original experiments.

As with Hodgson and Davey, participants could not be informed that they were about to be fed false information, because this would have negated the effect. The initial deception was required to help her understand how false information can affect memory, so that law-enforcement agencies were less likely to pursue wrongful convictions. 

But she also wanted to ask if such false memories could emerge without an original ‘lived experience’ to use as the basis of the distortion. Was it possible that an entirely invented experience that was demonstrably not true could in some way be ‘implanted’ into the mind of an unwitting participant?

In 1994 she reported a series of experiments that clearly illustrated that it was in fact very easy for someone to develop a memory of an entirely fictional event when suggestion and misinformation were used by an authority figure over a series of interviews. In her now famous ‘Lost in the Mall’ study, each subject was given summaries of four incidents from their childhood. Three stories were true; one was false. In the false story the participant was told that they had been lost in a mall or department store and that they were eventually found and returned to their parents.

Image of a stationary red car in a road with a man lying on the pavement in front of it. Two onlookers are close by.
From Stop Yield, 1979, Courtesy of Elizabeth Loftus.

Photograph from Elizabeth Loftus's original Stop Yield 1978 experiment, one of the first to use misinformation about a witnessed car accident.

After being coercively interviewed in the weeks that followed, 25 per cent of the participants reported clear memories of the fictional incident. Loftus had effectively created a false memory of being lost in a shopping mall in the minds of a significant minority of the participants. 

Since then Loftus and scores of psychologists from around the world have refined and replicated the effect in hundreds of experiments, with the rate of false memory creation usually somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent. The ethical legitimacy for such a methodology is a battle that has been hard fought – why should memory scientists be allowed to play with peoples’ minds in this way?

Unlike some examples of deceptive practice, there are clear and robust ethical clearances involved in the creation of a false memory experiment. Although participants are initially unaware of the deception, the researchers have to thoroughly debrief them after the experiment about the true purpose of the study and give them a choice to opt out of the results.

There are also limits to the kind of memories that are allowed to be ‘created’ and, perhaps most importantly, the ends have to justify the means. There have to be real-world settings where such insights into the nature of authority, suggestion and misinformation could be useful.

Fakery and false memories

In settings where either a therapist or a law-enforcement officer is trying to access ‘forgotten’ or so-called ‘repressed’ memories from a patient or witness, the science of false memory has indeed shown that there are considerable dangers in using suggestive techniques and misinformation (even unwittingly).

Such implications have been well documented. However, there are also now wider lessons to be learned about our current misinformation age from this fascinating paradigm. It’s one thing to understand that our autobiographical memories can be seriously manipulated by malign forms of suggestion, but what happens when our pre-existing biases and beliefs encounter similar manipulations?  

False information designed for political or personal gain has, it can be argued, always been a problem, but now, with the channels of miscommunication so slick, a malign deception can take on a hue of truth faster than ever before. And we now have at our disposal the technology to provide compelling photographic and video ‘evidence’ for such false events.  

Next time I’ll explore the impact this advanced fakery has, and how we can learn to see through the veneer.

About the author

A R Hopwood

A R Hopwood is an artist and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow. He has collaborated extensively with psychologists to create art projects about memory, belief and misdirection, including WITH (withyou.co.uk) and the False Memory Archive. He was co-curator of ‘Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic’ at Wellcome Collection in 2019.