False memories

The New Yorker describes how five Nebraskans confessed to a murder they didn’t commit:

Taylor confessed to the woman’s murder in 1989 and for two decades believed that she was guilty. She served more than nineteen years for the crime before she was pardoned. She was one of six people accused of the murder, five of whom took pleas; two had internalized their guilt so deeply that, even after being freed, they still had vivid memories of committing the crime. In no other case in the United States have false memories of guilt endured so long. The situation is a study in the malleability of memory: an implausible notion, doubted at first, grows into a firmly held belief that reshapes one’s autobiography and sense of identity.

Eli Chesen, a Nebraska psychiatrist who evaluated Taylor and her co-defendants after their release, told me, “They still believed to varying degrees that they had blood on their hands.” He compared the case with the Jonestown Massacre, in 1978, when a cult leader persuaded more than nine hundred people to commit suicide in Guyana. “You have a group of people who are led to share the same delusion, at the same time, with major consequences,” he said. “Their new beliefs superseded their previous life experiences, like paper covering a rock.”

In this case, the sixth convict who always insisted on his innocence eventually got their convictions overturned based on DNA evidence. The other five had a great deal in common: they were young, poor, and not very bright. They were also from small, safe towns where people respected authority. They were all awkward loners. Once incarcerated the five all proved to be model prisoners. The story is similar to Amanda Knox’s account of wanting so badly to help the police she wound up implicating herself and two innocent men in the murder of Meredith Kertcher. In fact, one in four convictions overturned on DNA evidence had been based on confessions.

False memories sound crazy but they are actually common, here are some examples:

  • I’ve heard so many descriptions of how I covered myself in cake on my first birthday that I “remember” it, even though that is highly unlikely.
  • There are things in my past that I so wished I had done differently, and fantasied about so often, that I now remember two versions of the events, the real version and the idealized version.
  • A relative of mine vividly recalled making a video recording with me when we were 12 or so, and he remembers the event fondly but I was never there. I have the video and can prove it.
  • I once met a man at a party who claimed to have met me some 15 years before at a different party. His description of me at the previous party rang true except I had no memory of it. I confessed I did not remember, with the excuse that I would have been 19 at the time and therefore most likely drunk. A few days later I remembered the event to which he referred and meeting him there… or did I? I remember no other details of the night. Did he implant a false memory?



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