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

What Are the Implications?

Egg Salad

Recent work on the behavioural consequences of false memories has shown that false beliefs rather than false memories per se impact behaviour.  Typically, participants in this type of study complete a food history questionnaire and then are told that based on their answers, the computer has generated a health profile for them. The profile falsely suggests that as a child, they had gotten ill after eating a particular food, such as egg-salad. After about two weeks, their eating behaviour is measured. People receiving the suggestion consumed significantly less egg-salad compared to the control group, and this effect can last for months (Bernstein & Loftus, 2009; Scoboria, Mazzoni, Jarry, & Bernstein, 2012). Recent work has revealed that behavioural change is solely determined by belief and not recollection (Bernstein, Scoboria, & Arnold, 2015). One interesting research enterprise is therefore to run an “egg-salad” study, but this time debrief people about the fact that the profile is false and their memories of having gotten ill from egg salad were wrong. What would be the impact of nonbelieved memories on food-related behaviour? Based on recent work (Bernstein et al., 2015), the expectation would be that people will not avoid egg salad even when still retaining the false images of being ill as a child.


Nonbelieved memories also have the potential to illuminate the links between recollection, belief and symptoms in certain populations, such as people with a traumatic history (e.g. retractors of abusive memories, PTSD patients). A factor worth noting for why people undermine their beliefs in the occurrence of traumatic experiences is that they have a strong desire to not remember the event. In Scoboria et al.’s (2015) research, a small percentage of college respondents (4%) were uncomfortable with or disliked the content of their memories and tried to “push it away from my mind” or “did not want to believe that that happened” (p.554). They successfully compelled themselves to withdraw belief, and thus formed nonbelieved memories.

Intriguingly, people who have experienced traumatic events frequently encounter involuntary, intrusive memories of those events (Berntsen, 2010) and often adopt the strategy of denying or undermining their belief in the occurrence of traumatic events (Horowitz, 1986). If undermining belief undermines rates of memory intrusions as well, developing methods to elicit nonbelieved memories would be a meaningful research direction with practical significance. Conversely, if recollection of traumatic events impacts people’s behavioural reactions, not belief, then a logical empirical attempt would be that by deflating the genuineness of PTSD patients’ recollections, PTSD symptoms such as traumatic intrusions would decrease.  But of course, it would touch upon a range of ethical issues: are therapists allowed to manipulate the content and belief-status of trauma memories?


The criminal justice system relies heavily on eyewitness testimony. Since 1989, there have been thousands of cases where prime suspects were identified and pursued, until DNA testing proved that they were wrongly accused.  72% of these DNA exoneration cases in the US based Innocence Project were victims of mistaken eyewitness identification or false memory ( Among legal professionals, it is assumed that eyewitnesses testify and make identifications based on their “recollections”. Yet, we know that in eyewitnesses too, belief and recollection sometimes are confounded as it is unknown whether eyewitnesses make identifications based on their false beliefs or false memories or both.

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