….but we are all fabulous.

Creating false memories

The first thing that 90% of people say when I tell them I do research on memory is that they have a terrible memory. To be fair this is better than when I was doing a degree in linguistics when people would ask me if I was cunning, but I digress… People’s perceptions of memory are inconsistent – on the one hand, people say that they have a bad memory, but couples will heatedly argue over competing versions of a past event, each believing their own account to be the most accurate. People forget names, have tip of the tongue experiences where they struggle to recall a word or imprecisely remember the directions the kind stranger just gave them just seconds ago yet juries routinely behave as if memory is as accurate as a video recorder, giving undue weight to eye-witness testimony months or even years after an alleged event.

Klee Memory of a Bird

Paul Klee, Memory of a Bird, 1932

Despite our conscious awareness that our memories are fallible, we persist in reporting them as if they were not. In my research laboratory, I conduct research looking at false memories for non-presented stimuli such as words, brand names, song clips and famous faces. The basic paradigm is known as the Deese-Roediger-McDermott or DRM paradigm (Deese, 1959; Roediger & McDermott, 1995). Using this paradigm, I present participants with lists of related stimuli, such as brands of chocolate “Nestlé, Galaxy, Mars, etc”. I then ask them to remember all the brands they think they were presented with. Participants often falsely remember the related but non-presented brand, in this case “Cadbury”. When they are tested a week later, their correct memory for the presented items goes down and their memory for the non-presented items goes up. Even more remarkable is that when participants are asked about the quality of their memory for the falsely remembered brands they report that it is very detailed.

One explanation for this false memory effect is that when we see or hear a brand, other related brands are also activated in our memory and that this in effect causes us to believe that we did see or hear them when in fact we did not. The effect is a powerful one which lasts over time and which even survives participants being warned of the effects. In my laboratory we have also induced false memories for song clips – if participants hear 5 song clips by Robbie Williams for example, but they don’t hear ‘Angels’, many of them will report later that they did hear it. Also television adverts: participants watched an episode of Green Wing interspersed with adverts about beers, cars and banks. They later reported that the adverts consisted of brands which had not been present.

These experiments are exciting to run in the laboratory because they are so effective. When I give my first lecture on this subject and read a list of words out then ask for a show of hands for different words, some of which weren’t present, students always gasp when they realise they have had a false memory. In reality, our memories are incredibly effective – we are able to remember hundreds of names, thousands of facts, 10’s of 1000s of words – but it isn’t perfect and we do well to remember that.


If you are interested in any of the Sherman et al references below, please contact me at


Roediger, H.L., & McDermott, K.B. (1995).  Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in lists.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21, 803-814.

Sherman, S. M., Follows, H., Mushore, A., Hampson-Jones, K., & Wright-Bevans, K. (2014). Television advertisements create false memories for competitor brands. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. Available online.

Sherman, S. M., & Kennerley, J. (2014). False memories for familiar songs. Memory, 22, 852-860.

Sherman, S. M. (2013). False recall and recognition of brand names increases over time, Memory, 21, 219-229.

Sherman, S. M., & Moran, E. (2011). Creating false memories for brand names. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25, 336–340.




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