False memories lead to good health

Michael Cook
7 Sep 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Manipulating memories has been a popular theme in science fiction films like Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is based on more than a shred of truth. A rash of allegations of childhood sexual abuse in the 80s and 90s based on "repressed memories" uncovered by over-eager psychologists shows that it is possible to be convinced of the truth of things that never happened - and dangerous.

Would it be ethical to deliberately implant false memories if the outcome was better health? The leading figure in the psychology of false memory, Elizabeth Loftus, has been studying whether it could help in combating alcoholism.

In a paper in Acta Psychologica she reported that it was possible to convince participants in an experiment that they had become sick drinking vodka or rum. Afterwards their liking for the drinks strongly diminished. She concludes, "Implantation of a false memory related to one's past drinking experiences may influence current drink preferences and could be an important avenue for further exploration in the development of alcohol interventions."

This follows other experiments in which she found that people could be convinced that they had become ill after eating dill pickles or hard-boiled eggs as children. Subsequently they were less likely to eat these foods. On a more positive note, people who were persuaded that they loved asparagus as children were willing to pay more for it.

Loftus acknowledges that this approach to health problems like obesity or alcoholism is ethically problematic. Does the end of better health justify the means of telling lies? She seems to think that it is. She told Time magazine: "Which would you rather have? A kid with obesity, heart problems, shortened lifespan, diabetes - or maybe a little bit of false memory? To me, it's a no brainer. I know how much fiction already resides in our memory system so I'm not so uncomfortable with a little bit more."