A picture is worth a thousand words: Fairfield University professor conducts study on photograph-induced memory errors



Image: Linda HenkelWe forget things all the time - car keys, passwords, whether we turned off the oven, etc. But how many of us would admit that our memory is susceptible to change from the outside? For Linda Henkel, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Fairfield University, photographs can serve as valuable memory aids but can also contribute to memory inaccuracies.

In a study published in this month's issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology, Henkel suggests that photographs can make people claim they performed an action that they did not do. Her article "Photograph-Induced Memory Errors: When Photographs Make People Claim They Have Done Things They Have Not," explains that participants were more likely to say they performed an act that they did not actually do after seeing a photograph multiple times. According to Henkel, these findings suggest that photographs can mislead people as to what they did or did not do, and this can have a detrimental effect on memory.

 "When people saw photographs consistent with an action having been completed, they were more likely to mistakenly claim to have performed the action than if there had been no photograph. Despite being wrong, people stated with relatively high confidence that they did remember performing the falsely attributed actions," she said.

Henkel's passion and research on photograph-induced memory errors has also led her to believe that there has been a rising interest in memory accuracy and crime scene investigation. She said research depicting falsified videotape evidence of someone committing a crime has led to higher rates of false confessions and apparent beliefs that the individual has actually committed the crime. "These findings suggest that showing witnesses or suspects crime scene photographs may be problematic because it can induce false beliefs and memories about the events in questions," she said.

Henkel said although police are unlikely to doctor photographic evidence in criminal investigations, a common interrogation tactic is to allude to physical evidence that does not in fact exist. Her research suggests that this practice may lead innocent people to take responsibility for an accused action.

Photograph-Induced Memory Errors: When Photographs Make People Claim They Have Done Things They Have Not. (PDF) Published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

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Media Contact: Mark Gregorio, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, mgregorio1@fairfield.edu

Posted on February 4, 2011

Vol. 43, No. 190