Do you remember the time President Obama shook hands with Iranian president Ahmadinejad? If you took part in a recent psychological study, it’s possible that you will. More than 5,000 participants were presented with doctored photographs representing fabricated political events, with around half claiming to have memories for the false scenarios (Obama has, of course, never shaken hands with the Iranian president). Part of a decades-long program of research by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, the latest study provides a neat demonstration of how our memories are created in the present rather than being faithful records of the past.
The popular perception of memory shows a considerable lag with the new scientific consensus. The psychologists Daniel J. Simons and Christopher Chabris have conducted two large-scale surveys showing that roughly half of respondents thought that memory works like a video recorder. And although many people do recognize that their memories are fallible, there is much less understanding of precisely how and why they fail us.
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