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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2013 Aug;142(3):827-44. doi: 10.1037/a0030093. Epub 2012 Sep 17.

When forced fabrications become truth: causal explanations and false memory development.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI 54901, USA.


Studies of text comprehension have amply demonstrated that when reading a story, people seek to identify the causal and motivational forces that drive the interactions of characters and link events (e.g., Zwaan, Langston, & Graesser, 1995), thereby achieving explanatory coherence. In the present study we provide the first evidence that the search for explanatory coherence also plays a role in the memory errors that result from suggestive forensic interviews. Using a forced fabrication paradigm (e.g., Chrobak & Zaragoza, 2008), we conducted 3 experiments to test the hypothesis that false memory development is a function of the explanatory role these forced fabrications served (the explanatory role hypothesis). In support of this hypothesis, participants were more likely to subsequently freely report (Experiment 1) and falsely assent to (Experiment 2) their forced fabrications when they helped to provide a causal explanation for a witnessed outcome than when they did not serve this explanatory role. Participants were also less likely to report their forced fabrications when their explanatory strength had been reduced by the presence of an alternative explanation that could explain the same outcome as their fabrication (Experiment 3). These findings extend prior research on narrative and event comprehension processes by showing that the search for explanatory coherence can continue for weeks after the witnessed event is initially perceived, such that causally relevant misinformation from subsequent interviews is, over time, incorporated into memory for the earlier witnessed event.

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