False Memory: Why People Know They’re Right When They’re Wrong

The Fragility of Truth: Navigating the Maze of Human Memory

Jeff Cunningham
2 min readJan 22, 2024

Memory is the guardian of our past, but at times, it can be a seductress, a shape-shifter, subtly changing and challenging our recollection.

False Memory Syndrome emerges when individuals firmly believe in fabricated or distorted memories, often clinging to these despite contradictory evidence. Such instances range from innocuous misconceptions, like the undying loyalty of Boston Red Sox fans stemming from glorified past victories before 1918, to more consequential misrememberings that reshape lives and rewrite histories.

The case of George Franklin exemplifies the problem of false memory. In 1989, his daughter Eileen Franklin-Lipsker reported witnessing her father commit the rape and murder of a childhood friend two decades earlier. This claim, rooted in a suppressed memory, became pivotal in Franklin’s 1991 conviction despite a lack of substantial corroborative evidence.

During the trial, experts debated the nature of memory. Psychiatrist Lenore Terr testified in support of the repression of traumatic memories. In contrast, psychiatrist David Spiegel and psychologist Elizabeth Loftus argued the commonality of false memories, often influenced by external information. Loftus’ research particularly highlighted how leading questions contaminate memory recollections.

However, the narrative unraveled when it was revealed that Eileen’s memory had emerged through hypnosis, which she had not revealed at trial, a method deemed unreliable in court. Further, her credibility waned when she recalled two other murders that also implicated her father, only to be contradicted by DNA evidence that matched another suspect.

Confirming the danger of false memory, DNA evidence conducted on the rape kits in 1995 also identified another male profile for Nason’s murder. Franklin was released from prison in 1996 and unsuccessfully filed for compensation through a federal lawsuit.

In 2018, DNA evidence implicated Rodney Lynn Halbower in the two other murders, leading to his conviction and life sentence.

Beyond the courtroom, everyday interactions subtly manipulate memories. Vividly told stories, leading questions, suggestive remarks, and grandiose delusions of success (i.e., Red Sox) can alter our perceptions and lead to implanting false memories.

George Franklin’s case and the broader implications of memory manipulation highlight the delicate balance between recollection and reality. As we look deeper into memory’s intricacies, we have to come to terms with its malleability and the ethical boundaries of manipulation.

Read more about the interaction between language and memory in Loftus and Palmer’s research here.