Psychological Conditions and The Impact of False Memory Formation

Topic Introduction

With the research of the brain’s complexity, there is an increased understanding that the brain is susceptible to committing memory errors, thus altering an individual’s perspective of reality. The assumption that human memory operates by recording past events and experiences with such accuracy is what leads people to place confidence in their own memories. Contradictory to what many believe, memories are not accurate records but rather they are reconstructive, meaning that memories can be modified by post-event information (Goldstein, 2015).

People can be confident in their memories, however, they may fall victim to implanting false details when recalling a past event. For people that plant false memories in their mind, it can have repercussions in their attitudes and behaviors. It can be alarming that the instillment of false memories in other people’s minds can be done without demanding effort. It is important to consider the nature of false memory formation for it can cause dire consequences in society.


Criminal Psychologist Julia Shaw challenges the concept of reality by discussing how each individual’s past is merely an illusion. She suggests that false memories distort past experiences and influence identity formation. Dr. Shaw proceeds by discussing how human memory can be manipulated by an individual’s own cognitive biases. According to Dr. Shaw, she suggests that people are inclined to recall their past through a rose-colored perception, meaning people remember past experiences more favorably than how it actually occurred. Dr. Shaw suggests that this is a coping behavior for individuals to move on from their past experiences and look towards the future.

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Consequently, this instinctive mechanism causes people to forget important details, thus distorting their recollection of their past experiences.

Moreover, Dr. Shaw talks about the reminiscence bump, the idea that older individuals have an increased recall of past events from young adulthood. Dr. Shaw offers a theoretical explanation as to why this phenomenon occurs. She suggests that young adulthood is a pivotal life stage for a vast majority of people because at this age period people are developing their identities. The recollection of past experiences influences an individual’s perception of what constitutes as being good and bad. Therefore, memory plays an important role for an individual to make choices based on their beliefs and values.

Moreover, memory being an influential factor in identity formation can also coincide with a person’s decision making. This can mean that the individual can decide if their memories of the past are reliable. Dr. Shaw proceeds by discussing how this can be problematic in a legal setting where people serve as eyewitnesses. Human perception can be deceitful and this can cause faulty eyewitness testimonials, thus can lead to wrongful convictions. People do not realize that their memories are susceptible to be modified by misleading information and therefore caused them to misjudge which events actually occurred.

Towards the end of her TedTalk, Dr. Shaw advises people to be cautious of their memories for it can lead them astray from the truth. She mentions that human memory is capable of making mistakes. To help secure the authenticity of memories from past experiences, Dr. Shaw suggests writing down the details of it. She strongly suggests for people to not put reliance on their memories and to start questioning reality. As Dr. Shaw declares that false memories are prevalent in all individuals, it is important to consider psychological factors that can increase false memory formation and consider ways on how to prevent it from affecting the future.


Since the formation of false memories is prevalent amongst individuals, researchers have examined variables that can generate the development of false memories. It has been suggested that sleep deprivation can increase the risk of false memory formation (Frenda, Patihis, Loftus, Lewis, & Fenn, 2014). With that in consideration, people who restrict sleep may fall susceptible to recalling events and experiences that never happened. Frenda et al. (2014) further suggested that sleep deprivation has been indicated to be associated with a reduction of cognitive performance tasks including but not limited to, a decline in working memory capacity, an intrusion in new learning, and impairment of executive function. As studies have shown that sleep deprivation can weaken cognitive ability, then it can be argued that sleep deprivation can increase false memory formation.

Frenda et al. (2014) have investigated the relationship between sleep deprivation and false memory. The researchers have investigated whether self-reported sleep duration the night prior to the experiment can be linked with participants having false memories of seeing a news event during a misinformation task. Within the experiment, there were two groups, a restricted sleep, and a non-restricted sleep group. Towards the beginning of the experiment, both groups were tasked to complete a news-event questionnaire that included a passage describing the 2001 plane crash in Shanksville. Pennsylvania. The purpose of the passage was to mislead participants into thinking there was widely seen footage of the crash, despite the fact that there is no captured footage. An item on the questionnaire asked participants whether they had seen the footage of the plane crash. The results from the experiment indicate that the participants in the restricted sleep group reported that they had seen the plane crash footage, and therefore showing that sleep deprivation was associated with the development of false memories of the news event.

Frenda et al. (2014) research findings suggest that participants who reported having insufficient sleep had experienced impairment of source accuracy at retrieval. Furthermore, people who are receiving not enough sleep can fall at a greater risk of modifying their memories of past events or experiences. The present research also suggests that people who are at a well-rested state reduce their risk of being misled by post-event information because sleep increases memory consolidation (Frenda, Patihis, Loftus, Lewis, & Fenn, 2014). Memory consolidation is a cognitive process that strengthens neural connections in the brain, thus allowing newly learned information to transfer over to the long-term memory system (Goldstein, 2015). With this in consideration, receiving a sufficient amount of sleep can be an efficient method in reducing the risk of forgetting previously learned information and reduce the risk of being susceptible to developing false memories.

With the research demonstrating that sleep deprivation can be a naturally occuring variable in increasing the vulnerability to false memory formation, other research has also demonstrated that stress and anxiety can also increase the development of false memories. According to Roberts (2002), individuals who are in a state of anxiety or stress may become susceptible to false memory formation. It is found that elevated anxiety or stress can trigger changes in brain regions that increase arousal and interfere with source monitoring (Roberts, 2002). Source monitoring is a cognitive process that identifies the original source of a memory (Goldstein, 2015). It is frequent for people to commit source monitoring errors when recalling past experiences or events. Roberts (2002), investigated the relationship between elevated anxiety and source monitoring.

In the conducted study, participants were tasked to study a series of images and words and attempted to recall all the images they had seen at two testing sessions, one during a low-stress time and the other during a high-stress time. The study consisted of three phases. In the first phases, participants have seen slides of images and words, and were tasked to keep a mental record of the number of inanimate and animate objects. In the second phase, participants filled out a series of mental health inventories to determine their state of stress and anxiety. In the final phase, participants were tasked to recall the previously seen images.

The results of Roberts (2002) study indicates that there was a significant difference in correct memory recall in participants who demonstrated elevated stress and anxiety. Therefore, stress and anxiety can increase false memory formation and inhibit accurate source monitoring. In addition, Roberts (2002) suggests that the effects of stress interferes with encoding and retrieval of information. With this in consideration, it can be argued that high-stress situations can produce consequences in a legal setting. People who experience high-levels of stress from witnessing a crime are likely to have a decline in accuracy in their eye witness testimonies (Roberts, 2002). Overall, stress can pose a detrimental affect in a person’s cognitive function, and therefore influence people to make false judgments of their reality.


There is a growing body of literature that documents the investigation of false memory formation and the effects it has on individuals’ recollection of past experiences. Surprisingly, people who have an extraordinary memory can still be swayed by misleading information of their original memory. Dr. Shaw makes it clear in her TedTalk presentation that false memory happens more frequently than we think. It is rather interesting that she mentioned that our brains have the capacity to edit our past by forgetting details of the original memory.

In line with Dr. Shaw’s claim that false memories are common amongst the population and can generate issues in the legal justice system, she could have integrated more on the effects of a person’s psychological state and how that can increase the risk for people to create faulty eyewitness accounts. In reference to Robert’s research on the effects of stress and anxiety on false memories, Dr. Shaw could have included more explanation as to how these intense negative emotions prior to coming in for a court session can interfere with the recall of witnessing a traumatic event. It can be implied that individuals who are put in stressful situations are inclined to forget important details when recalling past memories.

Dr. Shaw also touched base on the rosy retrospection phenomenon that suggests people recall events in a more favorable light and unintentionally leave out the undesirable details. I wonder if strong emotions associated with a memory of a traumatic event can put people into denial that those types of events happened to them. Since it is common for people to reminisce about positive events, it would be interesting to find out if the act of suppressing memories of negative events could increase the risk of the original memory being modified by misinformation.

On the topic of an individual’s psychological state of mind having an influence on memory, there is the awareness that sleep deprivation can be linked to memory problems. Frenda et al., (2014) research findings show an increased likelihood for sleep deprived people to develop false memories of past events or experiences that never happened. In the study, the participants who restricted sleep answered in the questionnaire that they supposedly witness video footage of a plane crash, but in actuality no such video footage exists. Though the misleading information of the passage led participants to believe there was existing video footage of the plane crash, I also think that those who were tested at a sleep deprived state had experienced a lack of concentration, and therefore were easily convinced that they had witnessed the plane crash footage. In another note, Frenda’s study could be improved by recruiting more participants from different races, ethnicity, and age to better examine how sleep deprivation and false memories impact a set of diverse populations.

With Roberts (2002) research on stress and anxiety and its profound impact on memory, I would like to point out that the knowledge of stress disorders on memory can provide assistance for health professionals in regards to interviewing their clients. As Roberts suggested in his research that stress and memory suggestibility coincide with each other, his findings could provide direction for mental health clinicians when trying to fill the memory gaps of their clients. Having consideration that recalling stressful events could cause triggering effects to clients, mental health clinicians could be more cautious by asking more open-ended questions. This can allow room for the participants to engage in conversation and potentially limit memory suggestibility. Overall, continuing research on psychological variables and its effects on false memory formation can be beneficial in helping to limit fabricated memories that impact an individual’s perspective of reality. 

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Psychological Conditions and The Impact of False Memory Formation. (2022, Apr 25). Retrieved from

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