This effect was demonstrated in a study by Saul M. Kassin and his colleagues at Williams College, who investigated the reactions of individuals falsely accused of damaging a computer by pressing the wrong key. The innocent participants initially denied the charge, but when a confederate said that she had seen them perform the action, many participants signed a confession, internalized guilt for the act and went on to confabulate details that were consistent with that belief.
These findings show that false incriminating evidence can induce people to accept guilt for a crime they did not commit and even to develop memories to support their guilty feelings.
Research is beginning to give us an understanding of how false memories of complete, emotional and self-participatory experiences are created.
First, there are demands on individuals to remember; for instance, magistrates exert pressure on participants to come up with memories, to match accusations made against them.
Second, the accused, having heard family and neighbours making statements against them, start to believe their guilt and construct memories to explain it.
Third, memory construction by imagining events can be explicitly encouraged when people are having trouble remembering. And, finally, individuals can be encouraged not to think about whether their constructions are real or not.
Creation of false memories is most likely to occur when these external factors are present, whether in an experimental setting, in a therapeutic setting or during a trial, where the accused is under extreme pressure
False memories are constructed by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others. During the process, individuals may forget the source of the information.
This is a classic example of source confusion, in which the content and the source become dissociated.
Of course, because we can implant false memories in some individuals in no way implies that all memories that arise after suggestion are necessarily false.
Put another way, although experimental work on the creation of false memories may raise doubt about the validity of long-buried memories, such as repeated trauma, it in no way disproves them.
Without corroboration, there is little that can be done to help even the most experienced evaluator to differentiate true memories from ones that were suggestively planted.
The precise mechanisms by which such false memories are constructed await further research. We still have much to learn about the degree of confidence and the characteristics of false memories created in these ways, and we need to discover what types of individuals are particularly susceptible to these forms of suggestion and who is resistant.