Disturbing False Memory Experiment Has Long-Lasting Effects

How easy is it to make you hate someone irrationally? All too easy, it turns out — with the help of false memories. A group of criminologists conducted a successful experiment with memory manipulation that's intensely creepy — and has unsettling implications.

Illustration by Color-Arcano

Criminologists at the University of California Irvine convinced a group of college students that they had been molested by a person at Disneyland who wore a Pluto suit, took drugs, and licked their ears inappropriately. They showed the students newspaper clippings about the supposed Pluto child molester, and said it might be "relevant" to them. Afterwards, the researchers found that the students were soon able to recall uncomfortable experiences being licked by Pluto at Disneyland. Another group was told a different story, about a nice person in a Pluto suit, who was especially kind to children and would lick their ears with his fabric tongue.

These false memories had mild repercussions, leaving the students with a lingering negative impression not just of their childhood "experiences," but of the Pluto character itself. Write the researchers:

We exposed college students to suggestive materials in order to lead them to believe that, as children, they had a negative experience at Disneyland involving the Pluto character. A sizable minority of subjects developed a false belief or memory that Pluto had uncomfortably licked their ear.Suggestions about a positive experience with Pluto led to even greater acceptance of a lovable ear-licking episode. False beliefs and memories had repercussions; those seduced by the bad suggestions were not willing to pay as much for a Pluto souvenir. These findings are among the first to demonstrate that false beliefs can have repercussions for people, meaning that they can influence their later thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.

This experiment suggests that it's not particularly difficult to convince people that they've had negative encounters with a person in childhood. Future dystopian government regimes take note: If you want people to hate your political enemies, just subject them to a smear campaign where they are associated with childhood traumas. You don't even have to blame your political enemies themselves — just include their image or identity in with the false memories. Like poor Pluto, they will soon lose popularity. And your mind-controlling authoritarian dictators can continue on their merry way.

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