New research provides evidence that susceptibility to false memories is related to political predispositions. The study found that people were more likely to have memories of things that never occurred when the fictional events aligned with their political beliefs. The findings have been published in the journal Political Psychology.
Research has demonstrated that false memories are fairly prevalent and can even be deliberately created. In work published in Psychological Science, researchers showed that innocent adults could even be convinced that they had perpetrated crimes as serious as assault when they were teenagers. “All participants need to generate a richly detailed false memory is 3 hours in a friendly interview environment, where the interviewer introduces a few wrong details and uses poor memory-retrieval techniques,” remarked lead researcher Julia Shaw.
Another study found that participants reported remembering events related to the 2018 referendum on legalizing abortion in Ireland that had never happened. The findings led the authors of the current study to wonder about the broader connection between false memories and politics.
“We know a great deal about the influence of partisanship on everyday perceptions of both political and non-political information, events, issues, and groups. For instance, partisanship conditions the interpretation of information (e.g., whether, say, 1,000 casualties of war is a large or small amount),” said study author Miles T. Armaly, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.
“We were curious if this phenomenon extends to the recollection of past events, which would suggest that psychological attachments to a party not only impacts the way we perceive new information, but how we recall (supposedly) existing information.”
Armaly and his colleague, Adam Enders, conducted two studies to examine the relationship between susceptibility to false memories and political predispositions. The first study included 819 participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk in October 2019. The second study included 962 participants recruited by Lucid in September 2021.
The participants read a series of vignettes about fabricated and genuine political events. For example, one event fabricated by the researchers stated: “In February 2021, an anonymous national security official leaked a 2020 phone call between U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and President Trump in which Trump admits to McConnell regarding the election, ‘there was no fraud…but we need people to believe it if we’re gonna win big in the 2022 midterms.'”
Another fabricated event read: “A conversation leaked from the Pentagon in September 2021 revealed that President Biden ordered senior military officials to “find something to drone strike” to take media attention off the messy Afghan extraction mission.”
After reading each vignette, the participants were asked whether they remembered the event. They could reply either “I remember seeing/hearing this,” “I do not remember seeing/hearing this but I remember it happening,” “I do not have a specific memory of this but I believe it happened,” “I remember this differently,” or “I do not remember this.”
The researchers included the response option “I do not have a specific memory of this but I believe it happened” to distinguish false beliefs from false memories. They found that participants were far more likely to report false memories than false beliefs. Nearly a third of participants claimed that they remembered an event that never happened. Many participants also provided vivid details of the circumstances in which they heard about the fabricated event.
The researchers found that Republicans were more likely to falsely recall events that portrayed Trump in a positive light and events that portrayed Democrats in a negative light. Conversely, Democrats were more likely to falsely recall events that portrayed Biden in a positive light and events that portrayed Republicans in a negative light. This partisan bias in remembering was only observed for fabricated events, not genuine ones.
“Individuals are often quite confident that their memories of certain events are a precise, time-stamped logbook of what actually occurred,” Armaly told PsyPost. “Psychologists have long known that this isn’t the case; recollection is prone to falsity. Yet, errors in memory are not random. Rather, partisanship biases our memory of political events such that we (falsely) “remember” events that are favorable to our in-group (or disfavorable to the out-group), and do not recall events that are disfavorable to our in-group (or favorable to the out-group).”
“We also investigated the psychological and political correlates of false memories,” Armaly added. “It seems to be a bipartisan phenomenon, and certain psychological and personality characteristics — like narcissism, conspiratorial thinking, and susceptibility to pseudo-profound bullshit — relate to an increased propensity to falsely remember a political event.”
The study provides new insight into the relationship between false memories and politics. However, research in this area is in its infancy. Armaly noted that the best strategy for measuring false memories is still unclear, among other things.
“Measuring false memories is tricky,” he explained. “First, determining what counts as ‘true’ and ‘false’ has been a philosophical quandary for millennia, and we don’t purport to settle that debate. This is made even more difficult in the political context, where one’s estimation of truth or falsity is a function of existing beliefs about the world.”
“In addition, it is unclear if misremembering a half-true event is the same as misremembering a totally false event, or if partisan bias will matter more or less for the half-true event.”
“We also do not consider what qualities of a fabricated event are most likely to produce false memories,” Armaly continued. “While we find that partisan bias relates to the propensity to falsely remember certain events, but not others, we cannot state why some events are more or less likely to induce false memories.”
“Finally, we are unable to state whether the propensity to remember false events is asymmetric across partisanship; future work could focus on differences in false memories across relevant groups.”
The study, “Filling in the Gaps: False Memories and Partisan Bias“, was published May 27, 2022.