Negative false memories are more easily implanted in children’s minds than neutral ones

Children develop false memories for a negative event more readily than they do for a neutral one. Henry Otgaar and colleagues, who made the new finding, said their work has real world implications for anyone working with child witnesses: “The argument that is sometimes heard in court – i.e. this memory report must be true because it describes such a horrible event – is, as our data show, on shaky grounds.”

Seventy-six children aged between seven and nine years were asked to recall details about a true event that had happened to them the previous year (e.g. that their class had to perform a musical), and either a neutral fictitious event (moving classrooms) or a negative fictitious event (being wrongly accused of copying a classmate’s work).

The children were asked about the events, true and fictitious, during two interviews held a week apart. If at first the children were unable to recall any further details, they were asked to concentrate and try again. They were also asked to reflect on the events during the week between interviews, to see if they could flesh out any further details.

Altogether, 74 per cent of the children developed false memories for the fictitious event – that is, they said they remembered the event and added extra details about what happened. Crucially, those asked to recall the time they were accused of copying a classmate were significantly more likely to develop a false memory than were those asked to recall the time they had to switch classrooms.

The researchers speculated that children might be more prone to developing false memories of negative rather than neutral events because the two kinds of information are stored differently in the brain. “Negative information is more interrelated than neutral material,” they explained. “As a result, the presentation of negative information – either true or false – might increase the possibility that other negative materials become activated in memory. This, in turn, could affect the development of a false memory for a negative event.”

OTGAAR, H., CANDEL, I., MERCKELBACH, H. (2008). Children’s false memories: Easier to elicit for a negative than for a neutral event. Acta Psychologica, 128(2), 350-354. DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2008.03.009

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.