How Reliable is Your Memory?

Posted by on Dec 3, 2016 in Featured, Ground-Breaking Experiments | 0 comments

How Reliable is Your Memory?

Loftus and Palmer conducted an experiment in 1974 entitled, “Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction between Language and Memory.” They wanted to investigate how memories of an event were affected by information gained after the event took place. Loftus and Palmer conducted two experiments both of which will be outlined below.


Experiment #1:


Forty five American students consisted of the sample for the first experiment. There were five conditions. Each participant was placed in one condition. They all watched seven films of traffic accidents ranging between 5 – 30 seconds. After watching these films, the participants were instructed to record what they had seen. In one condition, nine participants were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” In a second condition, nine participants were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?” In the three other conditions, nine participants for each condition were asked the same questions, except the verbs “collided,” “bumped,” and “contacted” were used in place of “hit” or “smashed.” The idea behind this was to investigate whether participant’s responses as to how fast the cars were traveling would be affected by the wording of the question.


Results revealed that the verb used did affect the participant’s estimation of the speed of the cars. The estimation of car speed was fastest when the verb smashed was used (40.5 mph). The speed estimation decreased with the word collided (39.3 mph), bumped (38.1 mph), hit (34.0 mph) and finally contacted (31.8 mph).


There are broad implications for this study, namely in court settings. Although eyewitness testimony can prove to be very useful in court proceedings, it also must be acknowledged that memory can be influenced by the types of questions asked and the wording used. Loftus and Palmer described two possible scenarios to explain the above effect. They said that there could be response-bias occurring whereby the participant’s may have an accurate memory for the event but may be influenced by the questions and may respond in a like-minded manner. Alternatively, there could be memory reconstruction taking place whereby the person’s actual memory of the event is altered based upon the misleading information embedded within the question. This can lead to further possibilities such as responder’s remembering things that actually did not occur based upon subsequent information and biased questioning. This leads us on to Loftus and Palmer’s second experiment.


Experiment #2:


The sample consisted of 150 students. They watched a one minute clip whereby there was an accident occurring for a few seconds within the clip. After watching the film, participants were asked questions about the speed of the car whereby different verbs were used for different conditions, as in experiment one.


One week later, participants were called in to answer more questions without viewing the footage again. They were asked ten questions. There was one critical question included which was, “Did you see any broken glass? Yes or no?” Despite there being no actual broken glass in the film, participants who had been asked to estimate the speed of the car using the verb smashed were more likely to claim that there was broken glass.


These findings reveal the flexible and malleable nature of memory. Memory is not akin to a video tape whereby events are recorded and can be played back with absolute accuracy. Many variables such as leading questions, false clues etc. can lead to a reconstructive process of memory. The verbs alone in this study can suggest to the responder the speed at which the car was traveling. As well as this, they can indicate what possible consequences may be as a result of this speed, ex. broken glass. The second experiment implies that memory reconstruction rather than responder bias is taking place. It implies that there is an integration process between memory for the actual event and information learned after the event. It then becomes difficult to prise the two sources of information apart. Furthermore, we tend to store information and form memories that fit with our existing schemas. Schemas are ways of storing and organising information so that it makes sense to us. For instance, in our mental schema of a car crash, it makes sense that there would be broken glass. Schemas help us understand the world and help us to predict what is likely to happen in certain situations.


There are several disadvantages to this study. For instance, the student sample used does not reflect the general population and the findings may not be generalizable outside of this population. Moreover, the experiment lacks ecological validity which means it may not be generalizable to real world settings. An important study by Yuille and Cutshall (1986) contradicts the results of this study. Yuille and Cutshall interviewed real witnesses of an armed robbery. Despite including two misleading questions, the witnesses were able to recall details accurately. Their study is intriguing since despite the witnesses experiencing heightened stress and anxiety, their memory for events was not affected. This may be due to the flashbulb memory effect which is when people may have an extremely accurate and vivid memory for a very emotional event. This may be difficult to replicate in a lab setting. Nonetheless, Loftus and Palmer’s experiment is an incredibly influential one and offers valuable insight into the memory formation process. It helps us to understand that memories are much more flexible and changeable than we may realise and that there are many factors involved in memory formation.


Check out this Ted Talk that Elizabeth Loftus gave about memory:



Loftus, F., E., & Palmer, C., J. (1974). Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction: An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory.’ Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13 (585-589). Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2014). Loftus and Palmer. Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2009). Eyewitness Testimony. Retrieved from

[TED]. (2013, September 23). How reliable is your memory? | Elizabeth Loftus. [Video File]. Retrieved from

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Hinds, R. (n.d.). Our Six Higher Faculties: Part 3 – The Memory. R. C. Hinds Coaching and Consulting. Retrieved from

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