Rich false memories of autobiographical events can be reversed

Aileen Oeberst*, Merle Wachendörfer, Roland Imhoff, Hartmut Blank

*Corresponding author for this work

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False memories of autobiographical events can create enormous problems in forensic settings (e.g., false accusations). While multiple studies succeeded in inducing false memories in interview settings (Scoboria et al., 2017), we present novel research trying to reverse this effect (and thereby reduce the potential damage) by means of two ecologically valid strategies. We first successfully implanted false memories for two plausible autobiographical events (suggested by the students’ parents, alongside two true events): Over three repeated interviews, participants developed false memories (measured by state-of-the-art coding) of the suggested events, under minimally suggestive conditions (27%) and even more so using massive suggestion (56%). We then used two techniques to reduce false memory endorsement, source sensitization (alerting interviewees to possible external sources of the memories, e.g. family narratives) and false memory sensitization (raising the possibility of false memories being inadvertently created in memory interviews; delivered by a new interviewer). This reversed the false memory build-up over the first three interviews, returning false memory rates in both suggestion conditions to the baseline levels of the first interview (i.e. to ~15% and ~25%, respectively). By comparison, true event memories were endorsed at a higher level overall and less affected by either the repeated interviews or the sensitization techniques. In a one-year follow-up (after the original interviews and debriefing), false memory rates further dropped to 5%, and participants overwhelmingly rejected the false events. One strong practical implication is that false memories can be substantially reduced by easy-to-implement techniques without causing collateral damage to true memories.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2026447118
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number13
Early online date22 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 30 Mar 2021


  • false memory
  • suggestion
  • reversibility
  • long-term effects


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