The recollection of an event that has not occurred is said to be a false memory. When the belief in these false memories become so strong that it deeply affects the individual’s identity and relationships, then it is said to be a false memory syndrome.

False memories have known to be a very common phenomenon. In everyday life, people often have distorted memories that they actually believe to be true. In criminal trials, many a times, eyewitness testimonies are based on false memories created due to misleading information. The cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has even created false memories in experimental conditions.

Even though false memories are very common, false memory syndrome is suggested to be quite rare. The cognitive psychologist John Kihlstrom describes false memory syndrome as a condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience, which is objectively false but yet the person strongly believes in it. The syndrome, according to Kihlstrom, may be diagnosed when the memory is so deeply ingrained that it orients the entire personality and lifestyle of the individual, leading to disruption in all kinds of adaptive behavior.

The concept of false memory syndrome emerged in the early and mid- 1990s. A number of young girls had filed complaints against either their father or a close relative for sexually abusing them during their childhood. It was found later that there was no physical evidence regarding their complaint. A further investigation revealed that their claims of being sexually abused in their childhood were actually false memories that were implanted during therapy involving recovered memories.

In a number of cases, it has been found that false memories occur due to suggestion based therapies like hypnosis or hypnotic therapy, which involves recovery of lost memories. Hypnosis is a state of consciousness that is characterized by intense absorption with internal experience and a voluntary suspension of normal awareness of outside stimuli. In this dissociated state of focused awareness, it is possible to influence voluntary and involuntary behavior through suggestion. During such therapeutic sessions, a therapist, if not highly competent, leads the individual to believe something that may not be true. 

These suggestions by the therapist are based on the responses of the individual, while being under hypnosis. It has often been found that such responses have no relation with their own life experiences, but may in fact be something related to another person’s life or something that they have read in popular media.

Hypnosis or hypnotic therapy, in fact, has been found to be one the major factors leading to the development of false memory syndrome. The recovered memories that people believe to have after hypnosis, are often something that comes out during the therapy due to its highly suggestive nature; it has nothing to do with any event of the individual’s life. Hypnotic therapy, at times, has been found to make people falsely believe in paranormal experiences and reincarnation. 

If hypnosis is one of the major causes of false memory syndrome, then the personality trait of hypnotizability becomes associated with false memory syndrome. Hypnotizability is the hypnotic susceptibility of an individual or the extent to which an individual can experience hypnosis.

Hypnotizability is a stable trait. Research suggests there are individual differences in hypnotizability with people varying from low to high levels of hypnotizability. Among the general population about 15 to 20 percent of people are said to be high on hypnotizability.

Hypnotizability seems to be affected by childhood experiences of normal dissociation and is found to be stable through adulthood. The characteristics associated with high levels of hypnotizability are positive constructive day dreaming, use of vivid imagery, greater intensity of affect, and longer durations of alpha brain waves. 

False memory syndrome generally occurs due to hypnosis. Therefore, it can be argued that a high level of hypnotizability – being highly susceptible to hypnosis – is associated with false memory syndrome.

People high on hypnotizability are also highly imaginative to the extent that they become deeply involved in the ongoing fantasy activity of hypnotic induction. This aspect of being high on hypnotizability also makes such people prone to false memory syndrome as it makes them tend to believe events that have never occurred.

The tendency to believe in fantasies and being involved in excessive day dreaming are also characteristics of the trait of fantasy proneness, which has been found to have a strong association with false memory syndrome. 

The personality characteristic of fantasy proneness has been the focus of research in false memory syndrome. People high on fantasy proneness are known for their profound fantasy lives. Such people spend a lot of time in fantasizing. They have a lot of difficulty in differentiating between the real and imagined life. Many a times, when they report their fantasies, they feel as if they are reporting real events.

Fantasy proneness has been found to be associated with false memories of being sexually assaulted and pregnancies. It has also been found to be associated to a wide range of paranormal experiences such as alien abduction, out of body experiences, and sightings of ghosts or spirits.

There is also a strong association between fantasy proneness and hypnotizability. People high on fantasy proneness are highly susceptible to hypnosis. This association of fantasy proneness with hypnotizability also makes it prone to false memory syndrome.

Apart from hypnotizability and fantasy proneness, in some instances, extreme levels of the traits of openness to experience and neuroticism have been found to be associated with false memory syndrome. Openness to experience includes many facets such as curiosity, creativity, preference for variety, and being highly imaginative. Neuroticism is about the emotional stability or instability of an individual. It includes anxiety, fear, moodiness, worry, loneliness, etc. Specifically, neuroticism with respect to psychopathology has been found to be associated with false memory syndrome.

False memory syndrome is a rare phenomenon. It is not yet recognized by classification systems like Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) and International Classification of Diseases (ICD). However, there has been a lot of research on false memory syndrome in the field of parapsychology – the field of psychology concerned with the scientific investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomenon. The personality traits of hypnotizability and fantasy proneness, and to some extent extreme levels of openness to experience and neuroticism have been found to be associated with false memory syndrome.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


TF said...

Interesting article. I was thinking it was similar to what was described here:, but it is different :).

Saif Farooqi said...

Yeah, that's about creating or implanting false memories, which is a different aspect :)