Some people are more prone to confabulation than others. For example, children reach a developmental stage in which they become more able to tell the difference between a ‘story’ and a ‘reality’; but even then, children as a group are more prone to confabulated memories than healthy adults.
There is a vast body of research that demonstrates the phenomenon of confabulation of memory. This is not intended to be an academic treatise, so I will not be providing references. But if anyone is interested in reading further on this topic I would strongly recommend the work of Professor Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine and the University of Washington. Loftus was one of the early researchers in this field.
If a memory is confabulated a person who experiences that memory has in a sense invented the memory, although that person will not in any way be aware that it is an invention. In other words, confabulated memories are experienced as if they are the truth. Indeed, one of the ways that researchers are able to on some occasions identify clearly confabulated memories is by the certainty with which those who report those memories maintain them in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
Once a memory has been confabulated it is impossible to separate it from a real memory. Therefore, if a person can create a confabulated memory he or she can certainly maintain it consistently even though in a sense the memory is fabricated. Not only can the individual who experiences the memory not distinguish between a real memory and a confabulated memory, but research has also demonstrated that without external reference psychologists are no better at distinguishing confabulated memories from real memories than are others. However, there are some contextual factors and features that properly raise doubts in relation to the veracity of a memory when it is considered.
The research also demonstrates that there are specific circumstances that are likely to increase the possibility of the creation of confabulated memories.
One set of circumstances that has been associated with the creation of confabulated memories is when a person has been the subject of certain types of psychological counselling or other interventions of psychological therapy.
The second set of circumstances is the investigative process itself. This is to say that there is evidence to suggest that the way in which the police or others ask questions of a person who may have been for example sexually abused has of itself the potential to create false memories.
I will be considering both of these sets of circumstances in my next post.