The Power of Words & Suggestion on Memory

Building on the concept that memories are reconstructed every time we recall them, do you think eyewitness testimony is reliable? Is it possible to alter the way a memory is recalled by nothing more than the words you use? Conjure a guess & then read on…

In what is now considered a classic study, researchers Loftus & Palmer showed study participants a video clip of an automobile accident. The researchers then asked participants questions about the accident such as, How fast would you estimate the car was going when it hit/smashed the other vehicle? The critical verbs used (hit vs. smashed) were varied to see if the different verbs influenced the speed estimates. Participants were also asked if they remembered seeing broken glass despite there was no broken glass shown in the video…

The study revealed how circumstance and prompting can influence memory. The group where the verb, hit was used estimated a speed of 34.2 mph. Participants in the group where smashed was used, however, estimated the speed to be 40.8 mph. Additionally, the group exposed to the smashed verb had a higher frequency of remembering seeing smashed glass.

Actions may speak louder than words. But, words still have gravitas. They can help to influence our recollection of memories, sometimes leading us to report events that never happened. They have power and can, literally, change an experience.

This was Article 7 from the Studio Quick Facts Series.

Works Cited
Dale, P. S., Loftus, E. F., & Rathbun, L. (1978). The influence of the form of the question on the eyewitness testimony of preschool children. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 7(4), 269–277.

Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior, 13(5), 585–589.

Perfect, T. J., Wagstaff, G. F., Moore, D., Andrews, B., Cleveland, V., Newcombe, S., … & Brown, L. (2008). How can we help witnesses to remember more? It’s an (eyes) open and shut case. Law and 
Human Behavior,32(4), 314–324.

Roediger, H. L., Wheeler, M. A., & Rajaram, S. (1993). Remembering, knowing, and reconstructing the past. The psychology of learn- ing and motivation: Advances in research and theory, 30, 97–134.

Weinschenk, S. (2011). 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People (Voices That Matter). New Riders.

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