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People Will Believe Almost Anything

DENVER--Even impossible memories can be fabricated from suggestions, according to results presented here at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting on 17 February. And real memories, even those for dramatic events, can be tinkered with using some of the same techniques. The work supports the idea that therapists can inadvertently cause patients to remember traumas that did not occur.

Many people think their memories of dramatic events, such as for where they were when they heard that President Kennedy was shot, are very reliable. To demonstrate the power of suggestion over such memories, Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues implanted a memory into people who had witnessed a bombing in Russia. They interviewed volunteers twice, 2.5 years and 3 years after the bombing. During the second interview, the team posed the suggestive question: "When you were taking part in our study, you mentioned a wounded animal. Could you tell us about it?" Almost 13% of the people recalled, incorrectly, that they had seen a hurt or bleeding pet.

Because critics argued that researchers could not be sure that the volunteers had not actually seen bleeding pets, Loftus decided to try to implant a clearly impossible memory: a person in a Bugs Bunny outfit shaking hands and hugging children at Disneyland. "Bugs is a Warner Brothers character. He wouldn't be allowed on Disney premises," Loftus says. Her team recruited volunteers who had been to Disneyland earlier in their lives. They were shown an advertisement for Disneyland: Bright words shouted "Remember the Magic!" next to a picture of Bugs eating his trademark carrot. Accompanying text included detailed descriptions of a trip to Disneyland that included meeting the wascally wabbit. Weeks later, 36% of the volunteers who had seen the ads vividly recalled that they had seen Bugs Bunny in real life--they shook his hand or felt his tail or even hugged him, they reported.

"Her work points out to people that, in terms of our own subjective experiences, what we think is crystal clear imagery could be inaccurate at the very deepest level," says psychologist Michelle Leichtman of the University of New Hampshire, Durham. When therapists help patients work through difficult issues, adds Joel Weinberger of Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, "we don't want to try to help people recover [false] memories."

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Elizabeth Loftus's lab