A New Way to Curb Drinking? Planting False (Bad) Memories of a Bender

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Researchers are exploring the possibility that convincing drinkers they had a bad experience with liquor — even if they didn’t — could lead them to drink less.

As surprising as it sounds, dozens of studies now show that it is relatively easy to create false childhood memories. By using suggestive techniques such as presenting apparently personal information or having family members claim that false memories are true, up to 40% of people can be convinced that they experienced events that did not occur.

Such studies [PDF] have planted memories of experiences as bizarre as witnessing a person possessed by demons — complete with foaming mouth and vomited hair— or as mundane as having been lost at a mall. The experiments were initially done in the context of court cases like those in which people were wrongly accused of committing Satanic ritual abuse at daycare centers. They showed that traumatic, but false, memories could be implanted. This line of research raised questions about so-called “repressed memory therapies,” which were popular during the 80s and 90s and purported to extract memories so traumatic that people were subconsciously suppressing them. The research showed that suggestive techniques used in those treatments resulted in recall that was inaccurate.

But if traumatic experiences could be falsely planted, then researchers began wondering if they could seed false memories to trigger helpful, rather than harmful responses. “After decades of studying the creation of false memories, a few years ago we started to ask what are the repercussions,” says Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of California in Irvine. “If I plant a false memory in your mind, does it affect later thoughts, intentions or even behaviors?”

To find out, she and her colleagues began studying eating. “We got particularly excited when we got people to have false memories of eating fattening food and [later], they didn’t want to eat it,” she says. For example, people to believe they were sickened during childhood by contaminated peach yogurt ate less of it when they were offered the food later.

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Loftus wondered if the same would be true for alcohol, and recruited 147 undergraduate psychology students to find out. The volunteers were told that the experiment focused on personality and food and beverage choices. They filled out a long questionnaire about their history with various foods and drinks before age 16, and also answered questions about their experiences related to them, such as “Got sick after drinking too much vodka” or “Felt sick to your stomach after drinking rum.” They were also asked how sure they were that these experiences had actually occurred.

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After completing the first form, the students rated how much they liked 63 types of foods or drinks, including rum and vodka. A week later, they returned and received what they were told were personalized profiles based on their answers. However, some of these profiles falsely stated that the participant had gotten sick from either vodka or rum as young teens.

Participants assigned to the false memory groups were then asked to elaborate on the experience with the beverage they were told had sickened them. If they said they couldn’t recall it, they were asked to imagine in detail what might have happened and then discuss it. Afterward, the students filled out the original questionnaire again and were asked about their memories of those drinking experiences and how strongly they felt about whether or not they had happened.

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As Loftus reported in Acta Psychologica, nearly 20% developed false memories, while the rest recognized, at least to some degree, that the implanted experience was indeed incorrect. Those who started drinking at an earlier age were more likely to develop false memories— but the participants were not people with drinking problems, so the finding was likely not due to alcohol-related memory problems.

Most importantly, the planted bad memory of getting sick by a drink also led those who believed it most to reduce, by more than a point on an eight point scale, their preference for that drink.

“We do have a malleable memory,” says Loftus, “This malleability allows us to correct errors when they spontaneously creep in, so that we can update them with the truth. It also allows us to live with a little fiction that might make us feel better about ourselves.”

While the idea of planting false memories sounds more devious than benign, Loftus says the technique could be beneficial in some cases. “One could envision [this type of] mind engineering that could steer you in the direction of living a healthier life,” she says. Parents, for example, could cue their children to have false memories of fattening foods. “Which would you rather have: a kid with a little false memory or one with obesity, a shortened life span, diabetes?” asks Loftus, “To me, it’s a no brainer. I know how much fiction already resides in our memory system so I’m not so uncomfortable with a little bit more.”

Others are not so sanguine about the idea of manipulating memory and experiences. Indeed, in an article this week in The Atlantic headlined “Psychology’s Sickness,” its authors decried any use of deceptive practices in psychology and linked it to high profile cases of faked research. “Deception in psychological research undermines the notion that we can expect honesty from those entrusted with the pursuit of truth,” the authors write, asking, “Do we really believe that the practice of deception can be safely contained in the lab? Are we ready to sacrifice the standard of truthfulness and the habit of honesty for the sake of a seriously misguided conception of scientific progress?”

Dr. Mark Willenbring, former director of treatment and recovery research at the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse and founder of the Alltyr treatment center, says Loftus’ study is “interesting and well done.” But he says that rather than focusing on the idea of planting false memories as a way to change behavior, the study highlights how preferences can be changed without conscious thought, perhaps more effectively than conscious strategies like talking about drinking urges to curb alcoholism.

“I think one of the future applications of this type of research is going to be in much more direct methods to change implicit or unconscious cognition,” he says. For example, one study found that when heavy-drinking college students had to repeatedly stop themselves from pressing a computer key when presented with a computer image of beer as opposed to a non-alcohol-related image, their drinking declined by 30%. They weren’t intending to cut back on alcohol, but the consequence of “rejecting” the beer unconsciously affected their behavior, in the same way that a false memory might.

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Even Loftus agrees that planting false memories to change behavior is controversial, and not yet ready for widespread use. In a forthcoming follow up study, her own work suggests that it may be easier to increase drinking with false memories than to decrease it. In that experiment, while a false memory of getting sick from white wine didn’t significantly cut wine consumption, a manufactured memory of having “loved” white wine before age 20 did increase it. “The more positive [suggestion] worked and the less positive had a small effect, but it was not statistically significant,” she says.

While memories may be powerful in motivating and even potentially changing behavior, they may prove too complicated to manipulate in ethically acceptable ways that produce expected outcomes.