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The misinformation effect occurs when people are given misleading information that changes their memory of events.

It can cause issues with two phenomena in the legal system: recovered memories and false confessions. In this lesson, we’ll look at both in more detail.

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The Misinformation Effect

In 1978, a group of people were shown a picture of a car stopped at either a stop sign or a yield sign. Afterwards, they were questioned about what they saw. Some of them were asked a misleading question: If they’d seen the yield sign, for example, they were asked about some detail ‘in the picture where the car was stopped at the stop sign.’ After the questioning, they were shown both photos and asked to point out which one they’d seen before.What do you think happened? You might be surprised: Less than half of the people who were given misinformation could pick out the correct photo, whereas about 75% of the people not asked the misleading question picked it out correctly.

The phenomenon where misleading information changes or otherwise affects people’s memories is called the misinformation effect, and it’s of great importance in the legal system. Many social psychologists, including Elizabeth Loftus, who led the stopped car experiment, study the misinformation effect and two similar (and also important) phenomena: recovered memories and false confessions.

Recovered Memories

In recent years, many people have come forward and pressed charges for crimes remembered years after the actual event happened. Recollection of a past event that had been suppressed or forgotten is called a recovered memory, and often the memories involve abuse or some other type of sexual or physical violence that had been repressed because they were so painful.

Recovered memories are a controversial subject because they are usually remembered so many years later that there is no evidence besides the recovered memory. When this happens, is the memory sufficient evidence to convict someone? Some people say no. Their concern is usually around a phenomenon called false memory syndrome – when a recovered memory feels like it is real, but it’s actually not.What causes false memory syndrome? Like the Loftus experiment, questions that are misleading may cause a false memory. This can happen in hypnosis, or a therapy session, or just in conversation between friends.Due to false memory syndrome, recovered memories are difficult to use as evidence at trial. Certainly some recovered memories are true, but there’s no way to tell which ones.

False Confessions

Another legal problem that deals with the misinformation effect is that of false confessions – when someone admits they are guilty when they aren’t. You might wonder why anyone would confess to a crime they did not commit, but there’s lots of evidence that it happens.Why do people make false confessions? Misleading questions and misinformation can elicit false confessions. They can even lead to people believing their own false confessions!If you think you’d never give a false confession, don’t be so sure.

One study showed that 65% of subjects would falsely confess to hitting the ALT key when forced to type quickly and when another person reported seeing them hit the key!

Lesson Summary

When people are given misinformation or misleading questions that change their memory of events, it is called the misinformation effect. The misinformation effect has a profound impact on the legal system. It can influence recovered memories (and false memory syndrome), and induce false confessions from innocent people.

Learning Outcome

Completing this lesson should prepare you to describe the misinformation effect, recovered memories, false memory syndrome, and false confessions.


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