New research suggests that susceptibility to false memories is linked to political preferences. The study discovered that when fictional events aligned with people’s political beliefs, they were more likely to remember them. The research was published in the journal Political Psychology.
According to research, false memories are fairly common and can even be deliberately created. According to research published in Psychological Science, innocent adults can be convinced that they committed serious crimes such as assault as teenagers. “All participants need to generate a richly detailed false memory in 3 hours in a friendly interview environment,” said lead researcher Julia Shaw.
Another study discovered that participants remembered events related to Ireland’s 2018 referendum on abortion legalization that never occurred. The findings prompted the current study’s authors to consider the broader relationship between false memories and politics.
“We know a lot about how partisanship affects everyday perceptions of political and non-political information, events, issues, and groups.” For example, partisanship influences information interpretation (e.g., whether 1,000 war casualties is a large or small number),” said study author Miles T. Armaly, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.
“We were curious if this phenomenon extends to the recall of past events, which would imply that psychological attachments to a party influence not only how we perceive new information, but also how we recall (supposedly) existing information.”
Armaly and his colleague, Adam Enders, conducted two studies to investigate the link between susceptibility to false memories and political preferences. In October 2019, 819 people were recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for the first study. Lucid recruited 962 participants for the second study in September 2021.
Participants read a series of vignettes depicting both fabricated and true political events. “In February 2021, an anonymous national security official leaked a 2020 phone call between U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and President Trump in which Trump admits to McConnell regarding the election, ‘there was no fraud…but we need people to believe it if we’re going to win big in the 2022 midterms,'” the researchers wrote.
“A conversation leaked from the Pentagon in September 2021 revealed that President Biden ordered senior military officials to “find something to drone strike” to divert media attention away from the messy Afghan extraction mission,” according to another fabricated event.
Following each vignette, participants were asked if they remembered the event. “I remember seeing/hearing this,” “I don’t remember seeing/hearing this but I remember it happening,” “I don’t have a specific memory of this but I believe it happened,” “I remember this differently,” or “I don’t remember this.”
To distinguish false beliefs from false memories, the researchers included the response option “I do not have a specific memory of this but I believe it happened.” Participants were found to be far more likely to report false memories than false beliefs. Almost one-third of those polled claimed to recall an event that never occurred. Many participants also provided vivid details about how they learned about the fabricated event.
The researchers discovered that Republicans were more likely to falsely recall events that portrayed Trump positively and Democrats negatively. Democrats, on the other hand, were more likely to falsely recall events that portrayed Biden positively and events that portrayed Republicans negatively. This partisan bias in recall was observed only for fabricated events, not genuine ones.
“People are frequently quite certain that their memories of certain events are a precise, time-stamped logbook of what actually occurred,” Armaly told PsyPost. “Psychologists have long known that this isn’t true; recollection is susceptible to error.” Memory errors, on the other hand, are not random. Rather, partisanship biases our memory of political events so that we (falsely) “remember” events that are favorable to our in-group (or unfavorable to the out-group) and do not recall events that are favorable to the out-group.”
“We also looked into the psychological and political correlates of false memories,” Armaly explained. “It appears to be a bipartisan phenomenon, and certain psychological and personality characteristics — such as narcissism, conspiratorial thinking, and susceptibility to pseudo-profound nonsense — are associated with an increased proclivity to falsely recall a political event.”
The research sheds new light on the relationship between false memories and politics. However, research in this area is in its early stages. Among other things, Armaly stated that the best strategy for measuring false memories is still unknown.
“Measuring false memories is difficult,” he said. “First, determining what counts as ‘true’ and ‘false’ has been a philosophical conundrum for millennia, and we make no claim to resolve that debate.” This is made more difficult in the political context, where one’s estimation of truth or falsity is a function of existing world beliefs.”
“It is also unclear whether misremembering a half-true event is the same as misremembering a completely false event, or whether partisan bias matters more or less for the half-true event.”
“We also don’t think about what characteristics of a fabricated event are most likely to produce false memories,” Armaly added. “While we discover that partisan bias is related to the proclivity to falsely remember certain events but not others, we cannot explain why some events are more likely to induce false memories than others.”
“Finally, we cannot say whether the proclivity to remember false events is asymmetric across partisanship; future research could focus on differences in false memories across relevant groups.”