Criminal Justice

Psychologist uses 'memory hacking' to convince test subjects that they committed crimes

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All memories are at least a little bit false, according to Canadian psychologist Julia Shaw.

Each time you tell a story, the memory changes, she tells Motherboard and Maclean’s. New details may be added, possibly with new information from another person, and imagination may be confused with memory.

Shaw, who is speaking with the media to promote her book The Memory Illusion, has worked with defense lawyers in the United Kingdom in sexual abuse cases based on long-ago events. She has demonstrated in experiments how to use “memory hacking” to convince people they committed crimes that never happened.

In the experiments, Shaw recruits student volunteers for a memory study. She tells the test subjects she has spoken with their parents about childhood events. First she talks about a true event that happened to the subject between the ages of 11 and 14. Then she tells the subject that his or her parents supplied information about the time he or she stole something and police were involved.

Shaw tries to get the subject to remember the incident by asking the person to visualize it. The test subject might, at first, remember a blue sky. Over repeated interviews, the test subject begins to remember details. “By the end of three weekly sessions,” Shaw tells Maclean’s, “70 percent claim they remember what happened and why it happened in detail: context, situation, what it felt like, smelled like, tasted like, looked like. They have multisensory details by the end of it.”

Shaw tells the test volunteers at the end of the study that the crime didn’t really happen. She plans a follow-up study in two years to see if the subjects still remember the false experiences.

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