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Elizabeth Loftus, Helen Burns, and David Miller (1978) presented the results of several experiments that provide evidence about the fact that a person’s memory can be altered after the introduction of misleading information. Respondents were exposed to a certain original stimulus. After viewing several slides, they were given false or misleading information about the original stimulus. Those who received misleading information performed poorly on memory test designed to determine memory recollection regarding the event they have witnessed. Michael McCloskey and Maria Zaragoza (1985) debunked this claim. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) asserted that misleading post-event information does not impair memory for the original stimulus. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) claimed that the procedure used in previous studies was inappropriate. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) developed modified research procedures to highlight the impact of not remembering critical details of the original stimulus. It is the failure to remember critical details that caused poor test results.
Significance of the Study
It is important to determine the science behind the misinformation effect, because the implication of the study goes beyond the confines of psychology. Insights and discoveries gleaned from post-event information studies are applicable to education, the development of training methodologies, and criminology. Insights gleaned from the poste-event studies will help law enforcement officers, and members of the Department of Justice to develop efficient methods in collecting and analyzing witness testimonies.
The significance of the study that was outlined earlier is the main reason why McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) decided to find out the validity of the claims made by other researchers regarding memory retention and recall. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) asserted that the results of previous studies contributed to the growing concern regarding the potential unreliability of eyewitness testimony. More importantly, post-event studies strengthened the view that memory representations are highly mutable and often contain distortions (McCloskey & Zaragoza, 1985).
Analysis and Discussion
The main point of contention is to correctly understand the nature of memory. If the visual image of the scene was stored in memory, then, the person can detect the integrity of the visual image presented before him. He can determine the integrity of the visual image, because he has ready access to the original stimulus hidden in his memory. Therefore, the presentation of an altered image should have triggered a negative response, alerting the person that there is an attempt to sow misinformation. However, the results of the experiment did not conform to this expectation. Some of the respondents altered their description of the original stimulus after misleading information was supplied to them. In some cases, the false information given was integrated into their recollection of the original stimulus.
The first explanation for this phenomenon was based on the argument that verbal and visual information are stored separately (Loftus, Burns, & Miller, 1978). In the said study, the respondents were subjected to a visual stimulus. They were tested using the forced choice recognition method.
The first part of the analysis focuses on memory retention. There is no general agreement with regards to the actual process of memory retention. In fact, there is no general agreement with regards to the specific area of the brain where memory is stored. It is important to know the specific area of storage because the follow up question focuses on the integrity of the image stored in the person’s memory. The respondents were able to retain the visual image in their memory because they were able to answer questions regarding that particular image. However, there is a need to know the type of information that the can be stored. It is possible that the mind exercises an involuntary filtering process. Thus, it can be argued that certain details concerning the original stimulus were never stored in the respondent’s memory.
There are questions regarding the actual process of memory retrieval. There is an assumption that the brain is like a camera in its ability to capture an image of an event. Thus, the image of the red Datsun crossing an intersection is the same image that is stored in the respondent’s memory. However, this does not mean that memory retrieval is one hundred percent accurate. It is possible that the stop sign was not recorded in the person’s memory. Therefore, the experimenter supplied misleading information about the traffic sign, and the respondent accepted false information (Loftus, Burns, & Miller, 1978). The follow up question attempts to determine why the respondent accepted the misinformation. It is possible that the respondents had no recollection of the said traffic sign.
It can be argued that there are certain factors that could affect memory retrieval. For example, the degree of effort expended in studying the image could affect memory retrieval. This is comparable to a student studying for an exam. A motivated student pays attention to the information before him. However, an unmotivated student may not perform the same way. Motivation is affected by perceived rewards. Some of the respondents may have failed to concentrate on the task at hand. This mindset may have affective the outcome of the experiment. The same argument can be made with regards to memory retrieval. An unmotivated respondent finds no incentive to focus on the task at hand.
The results of the pilot study was significant, specifically the discovery that false information has greater impact when it is supplied a short time before administering the memory test (Loftus, Burns, & Miller, 1978).
Resolving the Issue
It is possible that the respondents did not have any recollection of the stop sign. It is possible that this particular information was not recorded in the person’s memory. It can be argued that the acceptance of the misleading information was not deliberate. Misleading information regarding the event was accepted, because the respondent had no idea that these were misleading information. In other words there was total confidence in the integrity of the experimenter. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) supported this view but they provide a slightly different explanation. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) asserted that there were respondent who remembered the stop sign. But the respondents went along with the false suggestion of the experimenter. They went along not because misleading information resulted in impaired memory. They went along because they assumed that the experimenter must have known what was in the slides. However, this conclusion is only applicable to those who were unable to encode the traffic sign into their memory. In subsequent experiments, some of the respondents were able to encode the information about the traffic sign into their memory.
If the original stimulus was encoded into their memory, then, the introduction of misleading information created an alteration in the representation of the stored image. Therefore, the respondent created a stronger representation of the original stimulus.
The results of experiment 2 leads to another direction. In the said experiment, the respondents remembered the stop sign. Nevertheless, they agreed with the experimenter when he suggested that the original stimulus displayed a yield sign. Thus, misleading information did not influence them. At the same time, it is not an issue of trusting the experimenter’s words. They agreed to the yield sign because they thought that it was part of the experiment. It is an example of a demand-characteristics explanation. Nevertheless, there is another side to this coin so-to-speak. It is also possible that the results of the experiment is consistent with the initial claim that misleading information affects the recollection of a particular image stored in the person’s memory. This phenomenon is called supplementation.
The results of Experiment 5 provide a helpful insight that may help resolve the issue about retention and memory recall. In the said experiment, there was a higher accuracy rate when the objects used to create the misleading information did not belong to the same category. In the single-stimulus pair research design that was utilized in the first four experiments, the objects used to create misleading information were both traffic signs. It can be argued that the respondents had a harder time distinguishing the difference between the two, because both items belong to the same category. However, a shovel and a ski are not similar objects. These objects did not belong to the same category. Thus the respondents had an easier time distinguishing the difference, and their minds were able to reject the suggestion that the slides presented were the same as the original stimulus.
McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) interpreted the research design process differently. They concluded that the test procedure was flawed. The counter-argument was based on the idea that the respondents given the misleading information were not influenced by the introduction of false information. They performed poorly because they simply did not remember the stop sign. However, they remember the misleading information.
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McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) insisted that poor test performance was not the result of memory impairment; it is the result of flawed test procedures. They were able to remedy this problem by modifying the procedure. In previous studies, respondents were forced to say yes or no to the suggestion that the slide presented to them was the same as the image in the original stimulus. In the revised research design, the respondents were still supplied with false information. However, when it comes to the memory test, the image presented did not contain details of the misleading information. This is similar to presentation of the dual pair. But instead of presenting the stop sign and yield sign, the modified test presented a stop sign and a different traffic sign. Respondents that did not remember the stop sign chose either the stop sign or the alternative traffic sign. Therefore, the respondents were not affected by the misleading information; they were simply trying to guess the answer based on the choices that were before them.
McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) presented other studies that appear to conflict with their conclusions. However, they were not convinced that these studies provided any evidence to refute their findings. The researchers that presented the other studies have one thing in common. They failed to account the impact of respondents not remembering the critical details in the slides. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) pointed out that even if they did not remember the critical details, they were still forced to answer the question. However, they were forced guess the correct answer. The failure to guess the correct answer was erroneously interpreted as evidence of memory impairment, supplementation, and alteration.
The results of the studies created by Loftus, Burns, and Miller (1978) seem to suggest that misleading information can lead to memory impairment. The introduction of false information after witnessing a certain event seems to affect memory retrieval. This was bolstered by the results of several experiments wherein respondents continue to choose the wrong slide even after they were supplied the debriefing questionnaire. The debriefing questionnaire alerted them to the presence of misleading information. They picked the wrong slide even if it contained inconsistent information. They still choose the slide that has a yield sign in the picture. The yield sign was part of the misleading information that was supplied to them.
McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) made a counter-argument that the introduction of misleading information did not result to memory impairment. The experimenter failed to account one factor that significantly affected the outcome of the experiment. Their research design did not consider the impact of not remembering critical details in the original stimulus.
Without a clear understanding of how information are captured in memory form, the experimenter made the assumption that the respondents will remember the traffic sign. If they did not remember the specific traffic sign, they will choose the yield sign, because it was newly introduced information, and it will definitely affect their recollection of the original stimulus. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) were correct when they criticized the poor research design based on these assumptions. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) pointed out the main reason why the respondents fared poorly in the memory test given to measure their recollection of the original stimulus. McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) were correct when they pointed out that guesswork played an important role in the outcome of the experiments.
If the experimenter accounted for the possibility of not remembering critical details regarding the original stimulus, he would design a different test method. Their experiment will not include details of the false information in the slides that were presented to the respondents as part of the memory test. By doing so, the results of the debriefing questionnaire in Experiment 2 would have been different. The absence of the yield sign, and its replacement with another traffic sign would have prompted the respondents to say that he was unsure of the answer. He would have pointed out that he saw a yield design. But after supplying the misleading information the respondent was forced to use it, because he did not remember critical details of the original stimulus, and he was trying to guess the correct traffic sign.
It is good to know that McCloskey and Zaragoza (1985) were able to debunk the claim made by Loftus, Burns, and Miller. If the proponents of the post-event studies were correct, it would negatively affect the way people accepts eyewitness testimony. It is also good to know that in a real-life situation, an eyewitness does not have the opportunity to participate in a scheme where he is presented misleading information to affect his recollection of a specific event. In a real-life situation the eyewitness provides testimony on what he remembers. If he does not remember details regarding traffic signs, he will not volunteer information regarding traffic signs.
Loftus, E., Burns, H., & Miller, G. (1978). Semantic integration of verbal information into a visual memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 4(1), 19-31.
McCloskey, M., & Zaragoza, M. (1985). Misleading postevent information and memory for events: Arguments and evidence against memory impairment hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 114(1), 1-16.