Inventing Stories: Forcing Witnesses to Fabricate Entire Fictitious Events Leads to Freely Reported False Memories

By Chrobak, Quin M.; Zaragoza, Maria S. | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Inventing Stories: Forcing Witnesses to Fabricate Entire Fictitious Events Leads to Freely Reported False Memories


Chrobak, Quin M., Zaragoza, Maria S., Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


Studies of the forced fabrication effect have shown that participant witnesses are prone to developing false memories for specific items or details that they have been forced to fabricate earlier (e.g., what type of hat someone wore). Building on these earlier findings, the present study assessed whether participants would develop false memories if forced to fabricate entire fictitious events that were more complex and extended in time and involved people, locations, and actions that they had never seen. Participants vehemently resisted fabricating these events, and false memory development over the short term (1-week recognition test) was limited. However, after 8 weeks, participants freely reported their forced fabrications nearly 50% of the time and did so even when they had correctly and publicly rejected them earlier on the 1-week recognition test. This is the first evidence that participant witnesses will freely incorporate into their eyewitness accounts entire fictitious events that they have earlier been forced to fabricate.

In forensic interview situations, witnesses are sometimes pressed to provide answers to questions about witnessed or experienced events, even if they have no memory of the requested information. In such cases, witnesses may fabricate, or make up, a response. Although this kind of speculation may occur unwittingly, as in the case of spontaneous inference (Gerrie, Belcher, & Garry, 2006), the present study was concerned with situations in which witnesses are forced to fabricate accounts of fictitious events that they would not produce had they not been forced to do so. Might witnesses eventually develop false memories for events that they have knowingly fabricated under duress?

Laboratory studies of the forced fabrication effect (Ackil & Zaragoza, 1998; Hanba & Zaragoza, 2007; Zaragoza, Payment, Ackil, Drivdahl, & Beck, 2001) have suggested that they sometimes do. In the forced fabrication paradigm, participants do not provide erroneous testimony freely but, rather, are coerced into providing testimony about events that they have never actually witnessed. For example, in Zaragoza et al., participants viewed an eyewitness event and then engaged in face-to-face interviews. In addition to answering questions about true events that actually did occur, they were also pressed to answer questions about blatantly false events that had never occurred in the eyewitness event (e.g., they were asked to describe where the protagonist was bleeding when, in fact, he never bled). Participants resisted answering the false event questions but eventually acquiesced to the experimenter's repeated instruction to provide a response to every question. One week later, participants' memory for the video was assessed with a recognition test that included their fabricated responses. Although participants were warned that they had been interviewed about some fictitious events, they nevertheless claimed to remember witnessing details that they had earlier been forced to fabricate.

Why might people be prone to confusing events that they have fabricated knowingly with actually perceived events? Research and theory on source monitoring has shown that source confusions arise when information retrieved from memory about an item's source is ambiguous or incomplete, and/or when less than optimal judgment processes are used to evaluate an item's source (see Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993, for a review). For example, common causes of source confusions are situations in which a memory has characteristics that are typical of another source. Pressing witnesses to fabricate a fictitious event forces the witness to create a concrete, perceptually and semantically detailed version of the fabricated event, thus increasing its similarity to a memory of an actually perceived event. Moreover, because a self-generated fabricated event will be constructed within the constraints of a person's idiosyncratic knowledge and beliefs, it is likely to result in an account that may later be perceived as especially plausible and real. …

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