Can you nonbelieve it: What happens when you do not believe in your memories?

Not Believing a Hot Air Balloon Experience

Besides studying naturally occurring nonbelieved memories, researchers have examined whether nonbelieved memories can be elicited in the laboratory. Although a plethora of research has revealed that repeatedly suggesting that a false event occurred increases confidence, belief, and even recollection for that event (Koehler, 1991), our knowledge about how to undermine belief is still quite limited.  In one demonstration, Clark, Nash, Fincham and Mazzoni  (2012) provided participants with fake videos (i.e., doctored-video paradigm; Nash, Wade, & Lindsay, 2009) to create nonbelieved memories. Participants were first asked to perform some actions such as clapping their hands and rubbing the table while their actions were being video recorded. Two days later, participants watched a doctored video edited by the researchers in which fake actions were embedded and in this way, participants falsely “remembered” and “believed” that they had performed the fake actions. Finally, researchers told them that actually the video clip was doctored and then measured their belief and recollection for the action. This manipulation undermined participants’ belief for 14% to 26% of the fake actions but vivid recollections for these fake actions remained. 

Figure 1. Doctored video clip. (A) Real clip. (B) Fake action. (C) Doctored composite of (A) and (B). From Clark, A., Nash, R. A., Fincham, G., & Mazzoni, G. (2012). Creating non-believed memories for recent autobiographical events. PLoS ONE, 7(3): e32998. Copyright 2012 by Andrew Clark. Reprinted with permission.

In another demonstration, Otgaar, Scoboria, and Smeets (2013) used a false memory implantation procedure to experimentally elicit nonbelieved memories in children and adults. The false memory implantation method is known as an effective manipulation to create vivid mental representations for suggested false events in both children and adults (see Otgaar, Verschuere, Meijer, & Van Oorsouw, 2012). In this paradigm, individuals were: (1) provided with the narrative of a fictitious event such as a hot balloon ride when they were children; (2) guided by the experimenter to mentally “travel” back to the suggested event and think about or imagine the details of that experience; and (3) asked whether they had formed a memory for the false event across multiple interviews. Typically about 30-40% of individuals will report strong memories and beliefs for the suggested false events (Wade, Garry, Read, & Lindsay, 2002).

Otgaar and colleagues (2013) adapted this implantation method to elicit nonbelieved memories by debriefing individuals that the event suggested did not happen and then asking them whether they still believed or recollected the event. They found that for 40% of the participants who formed false memories, belief for the false event decreased, but that their memory representations for the hot balloon ride remained vivid.

Not only can people be led to form nonbelieved memories for false events, but they can also be induced to stop believing in memories for true experiences. Mazzoni, Clark, and Nash (2014) used the same procedure—the doctored video paradigm—to examine whether it was possible to persuade people to disbelieve, but recollect events that actually did happen. This topic is worth investigating because there are important real life equivalents. Consider the child victim who is told by the perpetrator that the abuse did not happen, or witnesses who are told during interrogations that genuine experiences did not occur. It is unclear how people’s memories and beliefs will be altered in such cases. Mazzoni and colleagues found that it was possible to undermine autobiographical belief for genuinely performed actions.

article author(s)