Detecting Misinformation Can Improve Memory Later On

A pile of old pictures and a journal to document memories of past times.

Exposure to false information about an event usually makes it more difficult for people to recall the original details, but new research suggests that there may be times when misinformation actually boosts memory. Research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that people who actually notice that the misinformation is inconsistent with the original event have better memory for the event compared with people who never saw the misinformation in the first place.

“Our experiments show that misinformation can sometimes enhance memory rather than harm it,” says psychological scientist Adam Putnam of Carleton College, lead author of the research. “These findings are important because they help explain why misinformation effects occur sometimes but not at other times – if people notice that the misinformation isn’t accurate then they won’t have a false memory.”

In their first experiment, Putnam and colleagues had 72 undergraduate participants view six slide shows, each of which contained 50 photos portraying a particular event. After looking through the slide shows, the participants completed an unrelated “distractor” task for about five minutes and then read narrative descriptions for each slide in the previous slide shows.

For example, if the slide showed a thief finding $1 bills in a car, the description might be consistent (e.g., “He examined the bills, and saw they were all $1 bills”), neutral (e.g., “He examined the bills and saw they were all US currency”), or inconsistent (e.g., “He examined the bills and saw that they were all $20 bills”) with the slide show.

After reading the descriptions and completing another distractor task, the participant then answered multiple-choice questions about what they remembered from the original slide shows, such as “What kind of bills were in the car?” The responses included a correct option ($1 bills), an incorrect option with misinformation from the narrative ($20 bills), or a different incorrect option ($5 bills). After making their selection, participants reported whether they had noticed any discrepancies between the original slide show and the narratives.

True to a general misinformation effect, people were most likely to choose the misinformation response when the detail in the narrative was inconsistent with the slide show.

But when participants reported remembering a change between the slide shows and the narrative, this deficit disappeared: Participants were more likely to select the correct response after seeing misinformation compared with seeing a neutral detail.

And when they reported that the narrative had contradicted the slide, participants were less likely to select the incorrect misinformation response for details that were inconsistent in the narrative compared with those that were neutral.

Although exposure to misinformation seemed to impair memory for the correct detail, detecting and remembering misinformation in the narrative seemed to improve participants’ recognition later on.

A second experiment produced similar results, and additional analyses showed that how memorable a detail was seemed to make a difference. Details that were less memorable, relatively speaking, were more vulnerable to the misinformation effect.

These findings suggest that the relationship between misinformation and memory is more complex than we might have thought – mere exposure to misinformation doesn’t automatically cue the misinformation effect:

“Classic interference theory in memory suggests that change is almost always bad for memory, but our study is one really clear example of how change can help memory in the right circumstances,” Putnam explains.

“People may learn about false memory research and walk away thinking that false memories can easily be implanted about all sorts of events– that we’re constantly remembering things that never happened,” says Putnam. “Our research helps in showing that although false memories can occur with some regularity, it isn’t a sure thing by any means.”

Co-authors on the research include Henry L. Roediger, III and Victor W. Sungkhasettee of Washington University in St. Louis.

This study was supported by National Science Foundation Grant DGE- 1143954 and by a Collaborative Activity Grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

All data and materials are publicly available via the Open Science Framework and the complete Open Practices Disclosure for this article is online. This article has received badges for Open Data and Open Materials (more information at Open Science Framework and Psychological Science).


This seems off to me. I question it because after many games of “Fictionary” … a game where the object is to correctly discern the correct definition from fictitious but plausible(?) answers created by other players… I can only remember the wrong (or more entertaining) ”definitions” and not the actual meaning. To this day I recall a “klong” as a “Dutch shower slipper” rather than a Thai canal.
Sound like a new test methodology for further studies?

Omg , I am reminded of a Christmas whenfamily gathering at my gramps and grams meant lots of games and joy . ‘ Fictionary’ was so much fun . I was in a nursing program so anything that sounded like medical terminology was thought to be me . I did make one up for a forgotten word ” a device that prevents pregnancy ” . Great times and I recall what I was wearing. Who knows maybe in circumstances where a memory may be more profound. I honestly believe the mind blocks certain activities/ events as a protective measure . I do know of a few that false memory is very real for them and if it’s not hurting anyone or thing then I never attempt to correct. Also because I can hardly recall what I was writing about to begin with . Interesting to see how long and short term memory apply . Long term false memory might be good if it’s positive, in the case of a mental illness that effect certain demographics.
Warmth .

Hm I think misinformation is most effective in the short term though. I once corrected my classmate when he gave an incorrect answer, however during the finals I came across the same problem, knew it was the same problem, yet the memory cue of correcting my classmate was not strong and I could not answer that question.

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