Psychologist Can Easily Implant False Memories in Humans

It's easier than you might think to implant false memories through the power of suggestion.

People are usually seen as gullible when they believe something false. However, most people do not know that the average person with no prior knowledge of a topic can be trained to create detailed memories of things that never happened to them in the past.

How someone can implant you with fake memories

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan argued that implanting false memories in people is not only possible but also relatively simple when done in the right circumstances with an unsuspecting subject. He cited people who, at the urging of therapists or hypnotists, genuinely believe they’ve been abducted by UFOs or falsely remember being abused as children. For many people, the line between recollection and imagination blurs, and events that never happened get woven into their minds as if they had happened. They may even eloquently explain these fictitious recollections as if they happened!

Astronomer Carl Sagan in 1987
Carl Sagan by Kenneth C. Zirkel under CC BY-SA 4.0

“Memory can be contaminated,” Sagan wrote. “False memories can be implanted even in minds that do not consider themselves vulnerable and uncritical.”


Sagan’s observation leads us to step one of our strategies to memory implantation, which is made possible by a simple fact: your friends who are known to be honest, humorous, supportive, and clever probably don’t all have invulnerable and critical minds. As a result, the first step is to choose one of your friends who you believe is “prone to suggestion.” Please remember that you should have known this person for at least five years and have shared experiences with them. This will improve your credibility and, as a result, your chances of success.

After identifying your goal, the next crucial step is creating a memory. The fake memory should have occurred at least a year ago, should not be very complicated, and not elicit strong emotional responses.

What the studies uncovered

According to studies, it’s easy for individuals to falsely recall minor information about events, but as the fake memories become more complex and specific, implantation becomes more difficult, but not impossible. After three interviews, researchers from Western Washington University successfully got subjects to recollect details about accidentally spilling a bowl of punch on the bride’s parents during a wedding reception. University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus wrote in a 1997 essay for Scientific American:


During the first interview, one participant, when asked about the fictitious wedding event, stated, “I have no clue. I have never heard that one before.” In the second interview, the participant said: “It was an outdoor wedding, and I think we were running around and knocked something over like the punch bowl or something and um made a big mess and of course got yelled at for it.”

Emotions tend to make people recall experiences more vividly. (For example, you presumably remember where you were and what you were doing around the time of catastrophic occurrences.) As a result, if you informed your target that they had experienced something extremely emotional, they could be less likely to believe a fake recollection. Researchers at the University of British Columbia persuaded 26% of their respondents that they had been victims of a severe animal attack as children in 1999. Still, their advanced methods are unlikely to work in a practical joke scenario.

The highest chance of success is to choose a childhood memory. You’ll have it easier by trying to implant something that happened a long time ago.


Your final task is to prepare when you’ve chosen your memory and target. If the prank is successful, you’ll need a few things. First and foremost, you must develop some narrative aspects surrounding the bogus recollection. Make your point as detailed as possible. What was your friend’s clothing like? What happened, and what were the conditions that led up to it? What was the atmosphere like? Who was present? You might also attempt doctoring a photo if you’re good at image editing.

In 2002, researchers used a fake image to expose twenty volunteers to a bogus childhood incident. Subjects were asked to think about the photo, which depicted them on a hot air balloon and recollect the event using guided imageryguided imagery activities throughout three interviews. At the end of the research, half of the participants had concocted whole or partial fake memories!

You’ll need corroborators as well; the more, the merrier. Researchers at Williams College proved the efficacy of corroboration in establishing false memories in the 1990s. Participants in the research were falsely accused of crashing a computer by hitting the wrong key. Loftus said:


“The innocent participants initially denied the charge, but when a confederate said that she had seen them act, many participants signed a confession, internalized guilt for the act, and went on to confabulate details that were consistent with that belief.”

Does it really work?

You’re now ready to put your strategy into action. Be persistent when you first start. It’s possible that the memory won’t stick immediately away; you’ll probably have to remind yourself of it several times over days or even weeks. Also, don’t be scared to use peer pressure. You and your fellow citizens should use sentences like these:

  • “Really? Do you have any memory of that?”
  • “Seriously? You were there, right?”
  • “You have a terrible memory!”

Memory isn’t a static concept. It’s a patchwork quilt that can be ripped, torn, and recreated; it’s fickle, constantly changing, and easily messed with.


“Perhaps what we actually remember is a set of memory fragments stitched onto a fabric of our own devising. If we sew cleverly enough, we have made ourselves a memorable story easy to recall,” says Carl Sagan.

Still, implanting a false memory in someone and convincing them to believe it is a difficult task. Researchers are only successful about half of the time, even in closely monitored laboratory setting.