Abducted by a UFO: prevalence information affects young children's false memories for an implausible event

Topics: Psychology, Memory, Event planning Pages: 19 (4907 words) Published: October 15, 2013
APPLIED COGNITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 23: 115–125 (2009)
Published online 14 March 2008 in Wiley InterScience
(www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/acp.1445

Abducted by a UFO: Prevalence Information Affects
Young Children’s False Memories for an
Implausible Event
HENRY OTGAAR1*, INGRID CANDEL1,
HARALD MERCKELBACH1 and KIMBERLEY A. WADE2
1

Faculty of Psychology, Maastricht University, The Netherlands 2
Department of Psychology, University of Warwick, UK

SUMMARY
This study examined whether prevalence information promotes children’s false memories for an implausible event. Forty-four 7–8 and forty-seven 11–12 year old children heard a true narrative about their first school day and a false narrative about either an implausible event (abducted by a UFO) or a plausible event (almost choking on a candy). Moreover, half of the children in each condition received prevalence information in the form of a false newspaper article while listening to the narratives. Across two interviews, children were asked to report everything they remembered about the events. In both age groups, plausible and implausible events were equally likely to give rise to false memories. Prevalence information increased the number of false memories in 7–8 year olds, but not in 11–12 year olds at Interview 1. Our findings demonstrate that young children can easily develop false memories of a highly implausible event. Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Both recent studies (e.g. Pezdek & Hodge, 1999; Strange, Sutherland, & Garry, 2006) and legal cases have demonstrated that children can develop memories of events that never happened, so-called false memories (Loftus, 2004). A well-known legal case is the ‘McMartin Preschool’ trial in which several teachers were accused of ritually abusing hundreds of children across a 10-year period (Garven, Wood, & Malpass, 2000; Garven, Wood, Malpass, & Shaw, 1998; Schreiber et al., 2006). Some of the children recalled extremely bizarre, implausible events such as flying in helicopters to an isolated farm and watching horses being beaten with baseball bats. The charges against the teachers, however, were eventually dropped; videotapes of the investigative interviews indicated that the children were suggestively interrogated and many experts concluded that the children’s memories were almost certainly false. Controversial cases like the McMartin trial have inspired researchers to investigate how children develop false memories of implausible experiences (Pezdek & Hodge, 1999; Strange et al., 2006), yet the precise antecedents of implausible false memories are still ill-understood. The question we ask here is whether prevalence information—that is, details about the frequency of a false event—is a potential determinant of children’s implausible false memories. *Correspondence to: Henry Otgaar, Faculty of Psychology, Maastricht University, PO Box 616, 6200 MD, Maastricht, The Netherlands. E-mail: henry.otgaar@psychology.unimaas.nl

Copyright # 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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H. Otgaar et al.

What do we know about the role of prevalence information in the development of false memories? Mazzoni, Loftus, and Kirsch (2001) describe a three-step process that explains how false memories are formed. According to this model, three conditions must be satisfied to create false memories. First, an event has to be considered plausible. Second, the event has to be evaluated as something that genuinely happened. Finally, images and thoughts about the event have to be mistaken as memory details. Consider, now, just the first stage of Mazzoni et al.’s model (event plausibility) and how prevalence information might affect perceived plausibility. Recent experiments have shown that prevalence information enhances the perceived plausibility of implausible events (Hart & Schooler, 2006; Mazzoni et al., 2001; Pezdek, Blandon-Gitlin, Hart, & Schooler, 2006; Scoboria, Mazzoni, Kirsch, & Jimenez,...

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Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 23: 115–125 (2009)
DOI: 10.1002/acp
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Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 23: 115–125 (2009)
DOI: 10.1002/acp
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