Forced Confabulation

Forced confabulation can occur if an individual erroneously incorporates into his or her memory of an event, self-generated information that was not actually part of that event. Forced confabulation most commonly occurs when an individual (a) experiences an event, (b) thinks about or talks about that event, and (c) later confuses what actually occurred with what he or she talked about or thought about afterward. Every time an individual makes an error of commission and remembers a detail of an event that did not actually occur, it is not necessarily confabulation. In the research literature, forced confabulation is typically caused by (a) forcing an individual to answer an unanswerable question about an event (i.e., the relevant information to answer the questions was not actually part of the event) or (b) pressing an individual to answer a question even though the individual has indicated that he or she does not know or is unsure of the answer to the question. As a consequence, later, individuals will sometimes erroneously remember the information in their forced answer as part of the event itself. When this occurs, it is considered to be forced confabulation.

A number of studies have been conducted to assess how postevent information influences event memory. This research examines how memory of an event can be suggestively influenced by exposure to any related information about the event. In most of this research, the postevent information is other-generated (e.g., information in the interviewer’s questions can be remembered as part of the actual event) rather than self-generated, but in fact, either would qualify as postevent information. Thus, forced confabulation is really a subtype of suggestibility that can occur from being forced to self-generate postevent information. A certain amount of self-generated confabulation will naturally occur as people think about and talk about events that they have observed. Although people rarely come to remember entire events that did not occur, it is common to confuse (a) what we correctly remember because we observed it with (b) what we erroneously remember from contemplating the event afterward.

A typical study of forced confabulation was conducted by Maria Zaragoza and her colleagues. They had adults and children view a brief video, followed immediately by a sequence of answerable and unanswerable questions. Unanswerable questions probed information that was not actually presented in the video. Half the participants were forced to answer every question and were told to guess if they did not know an answer. Control participants were told to respond only to questions for which they knew the answer; they were encouraged not to guess. One week later, all participants were asked whether they had seen various objects in the video. Individuals frequently misattributed to the video objects that they had self-generated.

One question of interest in the forced confabulation research is whether information is more likely to be incorporated into memory if it is (a) spontaneously self-generated or (b) forcibly self-generated—for example, by pressing eyewitnesses to answer questions about events that they are unsure of. Kathy Pezdek and her colleagues conducted several studies to examine this issue. In this study, individuals viewed a crime video and then answered open-ended questions that included answerable and unanswerable questions about the video. Half the participants were in the “spontaneous guess” condition; the “Don’t know” response option was available to them, so they did not need to guess any answers. The other half of the participants were in the “forced guess” condition and did not have a “Don’t know” response option. One week later, the same questions were answered with a “Don’t know” option available for everyone.

The primary finding concerns the following question: If participants were forced to guess answers to unanswerable questions at Time 1, were the answers they generated likely to be recalled 1 week later at Time 2, when they all had the option of responding, “Don’t know”? The responses to unanswerable questions are the most revealing in this study, because we know that the individuals did not actually observe the information relevant to answering those questions. The mean proportion of responses that received the same answer at Time 1 and Time 2 was significantly higher in the spontaneous guess condition (M = .54) than in the forced guess condition (M = .40). This result suggests that although false confabulation does occur, false information that resulted from forced confabulation is less likely to persist in memory than false information that individuals spontaneously provided because they thought they had observed it. Furthermore, when the same answer was given to an unanswerable question both times, the confidence expressed in the answer increased over time both for answers that were spontaneously guessed and those that were forced guesses. Thus, erroneous memories that occur from self-generated false confabulation are confidently held. This is of course problematic from the point of view of assessing the veracity of eyewitness memories because it suggests that it may be difficult to differentiate between true and falsely confabulated memories.

This topic is relevant to the specialty of psychology and law because virtually 100% of all eyewitnesses to crimes who eventually testify in court are interviewed by police officers at least once, and typically multiple times. Forced confabulation can occur in police interviews when officers press an eyewitness to answer a question even though the eyewitness has indicated that he or she does not know or is unsure of the answer to the question. In addition, police interrogation typically involves techniques to pressure witnesses to answer questions they are reluctant or unable to answer. It is important to recognize that such techniques are likely to generate forced confabulations— even confidently held forced confabulations—as well as true information. Although no data exist documenting how frequently this practice occurs in real police interviews, Richard Leo has reported that this is not an unusual practice, that, in fact, forced confessions commonly occur under these circumstances.

References:

  1. Ackil, J. K., & Zaragoza, M. S. (1998). Memorial consequences of forced confabulation: Age differences in susceptibility to false memories. Developmental Psychology, 34, 1358-1372.
  2. Leo, R. A. (1996). Inside the interrogation room. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 86, 266-303.
  3. Pezdek, K., Sperry, K., & Owens, S. (in press). Interviewing witnesses: The effect of forced confabulation on event memory. Law & Human Behavior.

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