On the presidential campaign trail in 1980, Ronald Reagan was fond of telling the story of a World War II pilot whose plane had been badly hit, forcing the crew to bail out. When one of his gunners was too injured to jump, the pilot stayed with him, pledging, "We'll ride it down together."
There was just one problem with the heart-wrenching story - it wasn't real. Instead, it was a scene from the 1944 movie, A Wing and a Prayer. Reagan remembered the details, but not where they came from.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter uses the Reagan example in his book Searching for Memory to show how certain stories we've heard can start to seem like real life. And now a new study from the University of Washington in Seattle shows just how malleable our memories really are.
Psychology student Liz Sanders found that after simply reading a story about something mildly traumatic happening to a child, people were more likely than people who hadn't read the story to think they had experienced the trauma themselves as children, even when they hadn't.
"We need to be careful as to what we assume our autobiographical memory to be," Sanders says. "Maybe we can make the error of believing that we did something when we only read about it."
Sanders's experiment was born of similar work done at the University of Washington by memory expert Dr. Elizabeth Loftus - most notably the famous "Lost in the Shopping Mall" experiment of the early 1990s.
In that research, Loftus showed that, with a little coaxing and help from a back-up "eyewitness," 25 percent of people could become falsely convinced they had suffered the upsetting experience of being lost in the mall as a youngster, even embellishing the story with added details.
In the 15 years leading up to the "mall" study, Loftus had shown in several other experiments that the power of suggestion could prompt people to remember all sorts of things inaccurately. As a result, she has become one of the country's most sought-after experts in criminal trials for casting doubt on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, and a pariah among child-abuse survivors for questioning so-called recovered memories.
In this latest study, Sanders, who was assisted by Loftus, cut out the element of persuasion. She merely asked people to read a one-page story about a child's experience - either getting lost in a mall or being picked on by a bully.
One week later, when asked a seemingly unrelated question about their childhoods, half of the subjects thought they had lived through a similar experience themselves. Among students who hadn't read the story, only 27 percent thought such a thing had happened to them.
And, surprisingly, the effect was stronger when people read stories about children of the opposite sex. Sanders said she had been expecting more false memories when women read stories about girls, and men read about boys, but the opposite was true. So far, she says, she has no theories as to why that happened.
Just as Loftus's original work was used to suggest that psychotherapists might be implanting false memories of childhood abuse into their patients' minds, this latest study might have implications for anyone who undergoes group therapy or watches a lot of TV.
Fabrications Large and Small? For example, Loftus says, therapists who work with traumatized war veterans have told stories of how one veteran might inadvertently "borrow" a harrowing combat tale from another vet who's in the same support group. "It's the familiarity effect," she says. "It feels familiar, but then you misattribute that to your own life."
In Sanders's experiment, the memory effect seemed to fade after two weeks. When quizzed 15 days after they initially read the story, only 39 percent of the students thought the event had happened to them.
Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Judith Herman, who treats trauma survivors, is skeptical that such experiments apply to real life. "It's easy to convince a certain percentage of people to fabricate a memory that's plausible in the context of normal life," she says. "The question is, can you generalize from that to implanting a memory of being raped by your dad? That's an awful big leap."
Whether studies like this can be used to cast doubt on memories of severe childhood trauma is still controversial, but at the very least it has the unsettling effect of making you wonder how much of your life story is truly yours.