We've all heard the old, familiar "big fish" tale. From just how much time you spent writing "the biggest essay ever" to how many drinks you slammed back at that house party this weekend, we're all guilty of occasionally bending the truth when it comes to telling a story. However, there does come a time when a story has been told in such a fashion for so long that, eventually, even you start to believe that you "literally spent fifteen hours straight on that paper" or "definitely had, like, sixteen shots that night". The phenomenon taking place here is the psychological concept of creating false memories. This phenomenon occurs when the idea of some event or activity taking place in one's past gets instilled in someone's mind, whether it be from external forces or from one's own stories. Over time, this idea begins to take hold and becomes a regular part of a person's memory, blending into the rest of the story until it becomes a matter of fact to the person. But this idea is not confined to just storytelling. There have been many studies on the development and planting of false memories into ordinary people. One researcher, Elizabeth Loftus, has even managed to convince dozens of people that they do not like hard-boiled eggs because at a young age they got sick from them, a story she made up in its entirety.
With all this in mind, I could not help but wonder why exactly we are so ready to muddle up the truth and discredit our preexisting, established memories. The only conclusion I could come up with was the idea that perhaps this is yet another psychological phenomenon caused by social activity. Perhaps this is why our stories get bigger and bolder with every retelling; the more outstanding the story, the better the social reception. Maybe our brain reads positive reactions from our peers with a reward system bias. But this could also be explained by social taboos and the lengths to which we go to avoid them. Could we really distort our own memories just to avoid a little social faux pas? This could explain why people were willing to change their answers on personal tests after being shown results collected by others. The flip side of this could explain why people were willing to believe Loftus's version of their lives over their own memories. In our society, it is generally frowned upon to totally disagree with someone in a one-on-one social engagement, which could explain why people are willing to forsake their own memory. However, this could also potentially be explained by Milgram's study of obedience to authority figures. Perhaps test-subjects were merely adhering to Loftus's story because they were already aware that she was an authority figure on the field of psychology.
Whatever the reasoning, the idea of instilling false memories is fascinating to me. It really makes you take a step back and look at the stories you've been telling your friends for years and try to think back on exactly how much of that was embellished.
Oh, and for anyone who didn't make the connection, this is totally the premise of Inception. Planting false memories until they grow into full ideas and affect someone's outlook on life?
Christopher Nolan would be proud.
Memory: Convenience Vs. Truth
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