False memories are influenced by several factors which could either alter or distort the memory but studies have shown that false memories are created during the encoding and the retrieval process (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Encoding refers to the process of recording the information that we have seen, heard or experience, and most of the time; life events or situations are a multitude of stimuli and it is not always possible to remember everything that has happened.
When a person has already encoded incomplete information, this would lead to incomplete memories. On the other hand, retrieval is the process by which the person recalls stored information. If people cannot accommodate all the stimuli present in a given situation, it is also true that not everything can be remembered and recalled.
In this case, false memories are created when the person retrieves incomplete or distorted information since it is human nature to fill in the details to events that we cannot remember (Hyman, Husband & Billings, 1995). When I thought I remembered a drowning incident that took place when I was 4 years old, I may have recorded incomplete information since I was too young and I could only comprehend what I was familiar with.
Then, I asked my parents about it and it turned out that I remembered some details that were not there or that I invented some of it, hence demonstrating that we tend to fill in the gaps that exist in our recollections of events. Memory distortions have very important consequences in eyewitness accounts and even in retrieval of memories brought about by counseling sessions or in therapy. If an eyewitness is not able to encode the situation completely, then he/she may also recall incomplete information.
When the eyewitness says that I saw a man, in a trench coat with an umbrella push the lady in the stairs, what he actually saw may just be a man in a dark coat, besides, this would not be helpful since there can be hundreds of people in a dark coat; saying that the suspect had an umbrella would only lead the police to look for an object that was not really there and point the investigation incorrectly. At the same time, inaccurate eyewitness accounts would lead to prosecuting innocent individuals while the real criminal is still free.
Meanwhile, the patient who goes into therapy due to mental health issues, depression or even adjustment problems may be led to believe into remembering events that did not occur. Therapists often ask leading questions which would facilitate the supposed remembrance of events that did not occur (Kosmond & Julie, 1995). In counseling, it would only lead to the diagnosis of issues that did not really occur, and wastes the time of the patient and the therapist as well as going against the main purpose of counseling and therapy.
I think that researches on memory distortions and false memories as it is occurring in our society are necessary. Eyewitness accounts may often become useful in criminal investigations and prosecution but it could also be problematic as it could call into question the integrity of the eyewitness accounts. Factors like distance, light, eyesight and even attention can influence memory and the actual event observed which would mean that eyewitness accounts cannot be trusted at all.
Researches that would establish the accurateness of eyewitness accounts or the factors that would limit it will benefit the criminal justice system. The issue of distorted memories during therapy has led to the numerous accounts of abuse and rape but after a few years, the same accusations were retracted since it was found that the memories were false (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Remembering and accusing a father, uncle or neighbor of rape is not an easy thing, and then saying that it was not true is equally difficult since the damage have been done.
The emotional trauma, the destroyed relationships and depression after these are more damaging and irreversible. References Hyman I. , Husband, T. & Billings, F. (1995). False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9, 181-197. Kosmond, M. & Julie, M. (1995). Repression, memory, and suggestibility: A call for limitations on the admissibility of repressed memory testimony in sexual abuse trials. University of Colorado Law Review, 66, 477-522. Loftus, E. & Pickrell, J. (1995). The Formation of False Memories. Psychiatric Annals, 720- 724.