The misinformation effect describes how a person’s memory of an event is impacted by new information that has been introduced after the event has occurred.
Elizabeth Loftus is an American psychologist that’s known primarily for her work on the misinformation effect and is largely attributed with having pioneered the concept.
The misinformation effect is concerned with how a person remembers an event after the event has taken place.
Despite that the person may have been there to witness an event or occurrence in real-time, sometimes information that’s introduced after (or the way the new information is phrased) affects our ability to accurately recall the true details of the event.
Loftus has demonstrated through her work on memory and the misinformation effect that our memory is more impressionable than we think, and perhaps not nearly as reliable as we would have assumed.
5 Misinformation Effect Examples
1. Did You See The Broken Light?
The misinformation effect is about how new information and details impede our ability to accurately recall our memory of an event.
Understandably, this could happen because of the way the new information is posed, the phraseology and words people use to ask questions all influence our understanding and recollection of past events.
For example, if someone were to ask a witness in a crime scene, ‘Did you see the broken light?’ versus, ‘Did you see a broken light?’ The former assumes that there was a broken light to begin with, whereas the latter leaves the possibility open that there may not have been a broken light in the first place.
How the first question is phrased impacts the eyewitness’s own memory of whether or not there was a broken light at the scene. The question in its phrasing assumes that there was a broken light, when there may not have been one to speak of.
2. How Fast Was the White Sports Car Going?
In developing the misinformation effect, Elizabeth Loftus conducted numerous studies where she would ask her subjects misleading questions to test the reliability of their memory.
In one study, Loftus showed the subjects short films of fast-moving events, like automobile accidents.
After the subjects watched the films, they were asked a series of questions, some of which were purposefully designed to mislead the subject, whereas other questions were factual and consistent with what occurred in the film.
Loftus found that when they were asked questions that were designed to mislead them, it increased the chances of the subjects reporting to have seen these apparent objects, or recall having seen them.
For example, after watching the film of fast-moving events, the study subjects were asked two follow-up questions:
- How fast was the car going when it ran the stop sign?
- How fast was the white sports car going when it passed the barn while traveling along the country road?
According to Loftus’s study, the first question is accurate and consistent with the film’s contents. The second question is designed to mislead the subjects since the white car never drove past a barn.
Loftus argues that because the misleading information is presented along with factual information, this impacts the memory and its ability to distinguish truth from falsehood.
3. Loftus’s Red Datsun Study
Loftus conducted a study where she had 129 study subjects look at 30 separate color slides depicting various stages of an auto-pedestrian accident. The car shown in the slides was a red Datsun.
The car was shown moving down a side street towards an intersection. Half of the study subjects saw that the intersection had a stop sign, whereas the remaining half of the subjects were shown a yield sign at the intersection.
The subjects were then asked 20 questions, one of which was “Did another car pass the red Datsun while it was stopped at the stop sign?”
Half of the study subjects were given misleading information (they were asked if they’d seen the opposite sign that they had actually seen,) and the other half were given factual information that was consistent with what the images on the slides depicted.
Loftus later found based on the study’s results that those subjects that were asked questions where the information was consistent, resulted in fewer inaccuracies and had a more accurate recollection of the slide’s contents.
Conversely, with the portion of the subjects that were given misleading information, their ability to distinguish between what they had seen and what they think they saw decreased. 71% of the study subjects acknowledged having seen the misleading information, which indicates that the subjects were unable to discern between the two.
4. The Fresh Juice Experiment
In a research article by Elizabeth Cowley and Eunika Janus, titled Not Necessarily Better, but Certainly Different, they looked at how advertisements impact a person’s recollection and memory of a certain product after they’ve already consumed it.
They found that consumer sentiment towards a product can in fact change through exposure to advertisements, even after the product has been consumed by the person. In fact, because of the advertisements, people recalled the product being better than they said it was when they initially tried it.
The ‘Fresh Juice Experiment’ precisely looks at how consumers’ sentiment changed after seeing advertisements for a juice they were asked to try. The juice they had given the study participants was diluted orange juice laced with vinegar and salt.
The subjects were then given advertisements to read claiming that the juice was freshly squeezed.
The results of the study found that when people are less familiar with the product and/or brand, people will blend their memories of the product itself with the advertisements they’ve been exposed to, impacting their memory of the experience of the product.
5. The Chocolate Bar Wrapping Experiment
The chocolate bar wrapper experiment was conducted by Elizabeth Loftus and expounds on the misinformation effect.
This study again focuses on how advertising impacts our recollection, feelings and/or experience of a product which we have prior experience with.
In the experiment, Loftus gave the study participants chocolate bars that were wrapped in a green plastic wrapping. The subjects were under the impression that this was a standard product taste test.
Later on, they saw an advertisement indicating that the chocolate bar’s wrapping was blue. Finally, the subjects were questioned on which colour they believed the chocolate had been wrapped in.
What Loftus found from the chocolate bar wrapper study is that when the subjects were given misleading information after experiencing the product (i.e., when they were told or provided evidence that the original wrapping colour was blue,) this would result in a suppression of their recall of the original product. Therefore, post-event information is more tenuous and malleable than we may have initially suspected.
The Source of Information and the Misinformation Effect
In a study on the misinformation effect, Dodd and Bradshaw consider how the source of the information (that is, the individual delivering the event or post-event information) bears on a person’s accurate recall of the event itself.
For the experiment, they asked the study subjects to look at slides from a car accident, and afterward they asked the subjects a series of questions, some of which were designed to mislead them.
Half of the study subjects were told that the information given to them had been provided by the defense attorney of the person that was in the accident. The other half of the study subjects were provided no information about the source providing the information.
What they found in their experiment was that those subjects that were given information from the “no source” accepted the misleading information, whereas the other half of the study subjects, which were given information by the defense attorney, were more inclined to reject the misleading information.
This is because the subjects that were given information from the lawyer perceived this information as unreliable or biased and therefore rejected it. Evidently, both sources gave misleading information, so the source of the information also plays a part in our recall of events.
Implications of the Misinformation Effect for Police and Journalists
Given what we know of the misinformation effect, it’s clear how certain professions and occupations would encounter this phenomenon more frequently than others and should be aware of its implications for this reason.
Memory and eye-witness testimonies are more fragile than we may have taken them to be, so any post-event information introduced has the potential to impact a person’s memory, and jeopardize how accurate their recollection of the event is.
Police regularly interrogate potential suspects and eye-witnesses in crime cases, and in doing so they could easily introduce post-event information that impedes the person’s ability to accurately remember the real details of the events. Understandably, this could result in false confessions, and tampered eye witness testimonies.
This is why it’s crucial that police, journalists and investigators ask questions that do not mislead the person being questioned, and do not phrase questions in ways that assumes things to be the case when they may not have been.
The Misinformation Effect in Media
We regularly see instances of the misinformation effect in politics and media. For example, politically biased media reporting after the fact has the potential to instill misremembering of events of national and global importance.
Fox news paints a rosy picture of Republicans’ presidencies for their intended audience, which leads to misremembering and a ‘rosy glasses’ reflection of his time in office.
The riots that occurred on January 6, 2021 were a case in point of this, and have since been framed as ‘peaceful protests’ by Fox, whereas MSNBC has described the event as an ‘insurrection’.
This is prone to cause politically-convenient misremembering of that period of time, and impacting the reliability of our real memory of the time.
The misinformation effect demonstrates how our memories are fallible and sometimes cannot be trusted. In the wrong hands, knowledge of how our minds misremember things can be used to manipulate people.
In fact, on a mass media level, the misinformaiton effect has the ability to muddy the truth and cause conflicts in society.