What Is It?

Interrogative suggestibility refers to how questioning can create false memories of events which never occurred. A 2000 study examined the effects of acquiescence and negative affect on creating false memories. The participants in this study were 103 female, college students, age 18 and over. Acquiescence corresponds to the tendency to defer to authority figures. Negative affect is described in the following manner:  

“A person high on negative affect is distressed, upset, and may view himself or herself in a negative light.  People low on negative affect tend to be content and pleased with their life circumstances” (Peiffer & Trull, 2000, p. 388).

Regarding their findings, Peiffer and Trull (2000) reported:

“Data from this study support what is a common finding in both the experimental and autobiographical studies: Human memory is fallible and subject to change secondary to outside influence.  In our laboratory study, participants’ tendency to respond affirmatively to questions regardless of their content and low feelings of competence were associated with greater suggestibility.  Furthermore, greater negative affect and the tendency to acquiesce both significantly predicted the production of false memories” (Peiffer & Trull, 2000, p. 393-394).

In discussing their findings, Peiffer and Trull (2000) further indicated:

“The relation between facets of self-esteem and suggestibility can be understood by considering competence esteem as an expression of low effectiveness in achievement situations.  In the face of criticism or leading content, individuals with low confidence may doubt their own perceptions or opinions, assuming that the person offering the feedback is more capable than they” (Peiffer & Trull, 2000, p. 394).

These findings are exceedingly important when considering the effects of adult influence on children’s memory in cases of alleged sexual abuse. This study demonstrates that children who experience negative affect, and are acquiescent, are at risk for reporting false memories in response to “outside influence” (Peiffer & Trull, 2000, p. 394).

Suggestibility and College Students

A 1999 study examined the recall of false memories using 77 college students (79% female, 21% male, average age 19.2 years) (Porter, Yuille & Lehman, 1999). The parents of these students were contacted about events the students may have experienced between the ages of 4 and 10.  The types of events selected would be highly stressful and frightening to a child.  Specifically, the events were: a serious medical procedure, getting lost, getting seriously harmed by another child, a serious animal attack, a serious indoor accident, and a serious outdoor accident.

In the first interview, one real and one false event title were presented to the participant.  The participants were told that each event had occurred according to their parents. In response to participants not recalling the false event, the interviewers encouraged them take their time and focus on recovering it.  The interviewers moreover suggested, “Most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough.” The interviewers also used guided imagery instructions to create images for the false event – “Picture yourself in [the location], imagine what it looked like and felt like to be [named], what thoughts were running through your head.  Visualize what it might have been like and the memory will probably come back to you” (Porter, Yuille & Lehman, 1999, p. 522).

All the participants were interviewed a second time and third time one and two weeks after the first interview. The second and third interviews focused on further facilitating recall of the false memory using the procedures described above. “Results indicated a high level of memory distortion. Overall, 20/77 or 26% of participants ‘recovered’ a complete memory for a false event and another 30% exhibited a partial false memory.  Thus, while 34 participants (44.2%) did not ‘recover’ any false information, more than half experienced memory distortion, either partly or completely” (Porter, Yuille & Lehman, 1999, p. 524).

Memory Distortion and Interviewer-Interviewee Interactions

Additional research has examined how the characteristics of interviewers and interviewees interact in creating memory distortion. In particular, this study addressed how interviewees who were introverted and predisposed to dissociation reacted to extroverted interviewers. The participants in this study were 75 college students, average age 19.2 years, and 81% of the participants were female. In a previous study by Porter and his colleagues (1999), more than half of the participants were led into reporting a false memory for a childhood event (e.g. a serious animal attack).  This present study included the participants from the previous study that had reported false memories.

In reporting its results, this study indicated:

“Overall, the pattern suggests that the provision of misinformation by an interviewer with extraverted traits to a rememberer with introverted traits and dissociative tendencies may be a recipe for a high level of memory distortion” (Porter, Birt, Yuille, & Lehman, 2000, p. 507).

Porter and his colleagues (2000) further indicated:

“In our view, the most compelling explanation concerns the degree of rapport that the extraverted interviewers were able to establish with rememberers.  It is apparent from observing the videotaped interactions that interviewers who scored higher on extraversion were better able than those who scored lower to engage the attention, motivation, and cooperation of participants to ‘recover’ the supposed lost memory” (Porter, Birt, Yuille, & Lehman, 2000, p. 510).

 Porter and his colleagues (2000) also indicated:

“Overall, the pattern suggests the provision of misinformation by an interviewer with extraverted traits to a rememberer with introverted traits and dissociative tendencies may be a recipe for a high level of memory distortion” (Porter, Birt, Yuille, & Lehman, 2000, p. 510).

Porter and his colleagues (2000) concluded the discussion of their findings, indicating:

“In applied settings, certain ‘recovered’ memories may result when a particular interviewer inadvertently misleads and reinforces inaccurate remembering in a susceptible individual” (Porter, Birt, Yuille, & Lehman, 2000, p. 510).

Mistaken Feedback and False Memories

A 2001 study examined how mistaken feedback can create false memories. In its introduction, Zaragoza and her colleagues observed:

“Social scientists and legal practitioners have long recognized that suggestive forensic (or therapeutic) interview practices are a major cause of inaccuracies in eyewitness memory.  Indeed, there is an extensive scientific literature demonstrating that exposure to misinformation can lead to false memories for details and even entire events that were never actually experienced” (Zaragoza et al., 2001).

Zaragoza and her colleagues further indicated:

“… in real-world forensic and therapeutic settings, suggestive interview practices are not restricted to situations involving the explicit provision of misinformation.  Rather in some cases, interviewers attempt to elicit from witnesses accounts that support interviewers’ beliefs about what transpired.  To this end, interviewers may forcibly press witnesses to describe those events interviewers believe transpired, even when witnesses cannot remember or never witnessed the events they are pressed to testify about” (Zaragoza et al., 2001, p. 473).

The participants in this experiment were 94 undergraduate college students. They viewed an eight minute segment from the Disney film, “Looking for Miracles.” After viewing the film, the participants were interviewed, and some of them were misled about what they had seen. 

Zaragoza and her colleagues found:

“With regard to the main hypotheses, the results are clear: Participants developed false memories for events they had been forced to confabulate, and confirmatory feedback increased this false memory effect” (Zaragoza et al., 2001, pp. 474-475).

As an example of how such false memories develop, consider the Interviewer-Participant exchange quoted below.

Interviewer: After he fell, where was Delaney bleeding? [This is misinformation. Delaney was not bleeding after he fell].

Participant: He wasn’t.  He was? I didn’t see any blood.

Interviewer: What’s your best guess?

Participant: Where he was bleeding?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Participant: But he wasn’t bleeding.  Oh … I don’t have a best guess.  I didn’t think he was bleeding.  His knee?

Interviewer: Okay, his knee.

Participant: It’s not his knee!

Interviewer: That’s actually the right answer.

Participant: Is it?  I was just thinking, kid falling, his knee on the chair, you know.

Zaragoza and her colleagues further explained:

“Note: After receiving confirmatory feedback, the participant not only abandoned her doubts about the veracity of the false event (that Delaney bled), but also constructed a scenario (he hit his knee on the chair) within which her confabulation (it was his knee that bled) could have transpired” (Zaragoza et al., 2001, p. 476)

Zaragoza and her colleagues concluded the discussion of their findings, indicating:

“It is noteworthy that the interviewers in this study were not law-enforcement officials or legal professionals, but undergraduate and graduate research assistants from the participants’ peer group.  We suspect that the memory-distortion effects reported here may underestimate the potential for confirmatory feedback to effect memory change when it is provided by a more powerful, authoritative source” (Zaragoza et al., 2001, p. 477).