CHICAGO — Imagine you've just been through a Guantanamo-style interrogation by a man in a prisoner-of-war camp. You're sitting in an isolation cell, when another of your captors bursts in the door, brandishing a photo of a man, and asking, "Did your interrogator give you anything to eat?" The man leaves, but later as your ordeal is ending, you're asked to pick out your interrogator from nine faces.
Surely, his image would be burned into your memory, right?
Using data from soldiers in a mock prisoner-of-war exercise within the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape programs of the U.S. military, new research shows that eighty-five percent of soldiers chose the man in the photograph — who was not involved in any way — instead of the man who'd actually subjected them to what the military calls a "very stressful interrogation" that could have included a variety of physically demanding tasks and some violence.
In other words, soldiers undergoing mock interrogations can be tricked by simple psychological techniques into misidentifying their interrogator. Combined with other research carried out by Elizabeth Loftus at the University of California, Irvine, psychologists are closing in on the exact procedures for creating false memories in individuals in a wide variety of circumstances.
"It can be said that we're on the brink of having a recipe for how we go about developing a false memory," Loftus told a packed lecture hall here at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences annual meeting on Saturday.
The study of misinformation and false memories have consistently shown that human beings are highly susceptible to suggestion. Much of the work has focused on creating or changing people's memories of the past. Loftus gave several humorous examples of memories that her team has been able to plant in substantial portions of the people in their studies, including convincing people that they had gotten sick from eating strawberry ice cream or the Pluto character at Disneyland had licked "their ears disturbingly and uncomfortably" when they were young children.
The point of these strange-sounding experiments is to find out how reliable human memory is, particularly under assault from misinformation or leading questions. What makes the interrogation research, led by Yale psychiatrist C. Andrew Morgan, so interesting is that the false memory of the interrogator was created mere hours after the experience. Even with the experience fresh in mind, the soldiers proved highly susceptible to misinformation.
Loftus group has tested planting simple misinformation as well as far more complex schemes in her efforts to probe the accuracy of human eyewitness testimony. DNA evidence and other high-tech methods had already created some doubt about how iron-clad the information you receive from seeing something with your own two eyes really is.
The research calls into question the entire eyewitness-based legal system. False memories implanted by researchers, it turns out, look basically identical to real memories. Neuroimaging machines can't tell them apart and neither can researchers.
So now, Loftus and her team are working to find out exactly who is most susceptible to having their memories altered by misinformation.
"I believe to some extent we're all susceptible to succumbing to false memories and having people tinker with our autobiographies," Loftus said, but a big brain can provide some measure of protection. "The smarter you are, the more you resist the misinformation."Original here