Why do we forget where our memories come from?
Source Confusion, explained.
What is source confusion?
Source confusion, also known as source misattribution or unconscious transference, is a type of memory error. It occurs when someone does not remember where certain memories come from.
Where this bias occurs
Imagine the following hypothetical scenario: Zachary is brought into the police department for questioning after his apartment is broken into. The officer asks him a series of questions about the thief, including “How tall do you think the man was?” and “What color was the man’s sweatshirt?” After scouring his memory for details, Zachary provides the most accurate report possible. But despite his efforts, the department cannot identify a suspect that matches his description.
Almost one year later, Zachary gets a call from the department informing him that they finally caught the culprit. As it turns out, the thief was not a man but a sixteen-year-old girl! How could this be possible?
Zachary fell victim to source misattribution by confusing the officer’s assumptions about the thief’s gender with his memory of the thief’s gender. All those prompting questions coaxed Zachary to form a vivid mental image of the culprit, believing he was digging deep into his memory to conjure the details. Meanwhile, if the officer had asked neutral questions—like “How tall was the thief?” or “What color was the thief wearing?”—Zachary would have been less likely to mistake her gender.
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We misconstrue the source of our memories every day, including the faces we see, the places we go, and the stories we hear.
Have you ever stumbled into someone you swear you recognize but do not remember where from? Maybe they were a college friend, a former colleague, or even a forgotten celebrity—you cannot put a finger on it. This is a prime example of source confusion because you fail to recall the original context their face is from.
Another classic anecdote is struggling to determine whether you have been to a particular place before or seen enough pictures to make it feel like you have. Social psychologists Alan Brown and Elizabeth Marsh even convinced participants they had visited an unfamiliar college campus by repeatedly exposing them to photos weeks beforehand.1
You may have also experienced source confusion when mixing up where you originally heard a story. Often, people will recall reading a story in the news when they actually saw it on a show, heard it from a friend, or encountered it from a different source altogether.2
Although everyone is subject to these instances of source confusion, some research suggests that young children may be disproportionately susceptible compared to adults. After all, toddlers do not yet have the cognitive ability and lived experience to detect things as too bizarre to belong in their autobiographical memory. This would explain why some preschoolers mistake fantastical stories they may have read in a picture book as having happened to them in real life.3 Meanwhile, it is easier for most adults to distinguish that they did not battle Darth Vader in the middle of the night but fell asleep watching The Empire Strikes Back.
Arguably, the most dangerous consequences of source confusion lie within the legal system. In the 1970s and 1980s, social science researchers demonstrated that misinformation from prompting questions can lead to inaccuracy in eyewitness testimony. Did you see the gun, or did the officer tell you there was a gun? Did the cars smash into each other, or did the attorney simply suggest they did?4 With so much time spanning between the incident and the trial, our accounts become more and more malleable with each retelling.
Not only does source confusion distort our recollection of the crime, but who committed that crime. When asked to evaluate a lineup, a witness may recognize a suspect from everyday life but accidentally report having encountered them at the crime scene. Take, for example, when Australian Psychologist Donald M. Thomson was falsely accused of raping a woman—when in reality, she had seen him on television that same night, giving a lecture about memory error!5 This ironic yet true story exhibits how the woman was correct that she had seen the man before, just not about where.
Source misattribution can even happen when witnesses have never seen the suspect before. The harmful stereotypes planted in our memories about minority groups may prompt us to falsely recognize an innocent person as a perpetrator. These biases endanger individuals with certain racial, religious, or gender identities of being wrongly accused more often than others.
Unfortunately, false eyewitness testimonies have led hundreds of people to be incarcerated who were later proven innocent by DNA evidence.6 This is why other forms of evidence are essential to keep our memories in check, and more importantly, keep innocent people out of jail.
How it affects product
Have you ever googled a random fact—such as how many languages are spoken in India—and completely blanked on where you learned it while flaunting to a friend? You know it’s 398, you just don’t know how you know it’s 398.
This embarrassing incident illustrates how looking up information online amplifies source confusion. We don’t encode the websites where we get our facts since we don’t access the articles themselves. Instead, we merely browse through the search engine results page, which provides widgets containing exactly what we need to know. If you search “how many languages are spoken in India,” the answer will pop up right at the top of the page. Why pay attention to where Google found this fact from?
Source confusion extends beyond search engines to social media, where mass consumption of information inhibits our ability to remember where this information is from. While endlessly scrolling through your feed, you may learn a lot of facts but forget which accounts posted them, limiting their reputability. In this case, source confusion makes us prone to accepting misinformation as the truth, and even spreading it ourselves.
The internet can be a great research tool, but only if we use it as such. We must remember to check our sources while researching, or cite our sources while posting online, because some “fun facts” have not-so-fun implications.
Source Confusion and AI
Now, let’s say you choose to research the number of languages spoken in India on ChatGPT instead. Unlike Google, which gives you “398” at the top of the page, ChatGPT provides a lengthy response that distinguishes official languages from regional and even extinct ones. However, while Google directly links its answer to its source, ChatGPT does not cite a single one, leaving users blind to how its algorithm extracts information from its dataset.
This anecdote unveils the tradeoff between researching what we now consider “traditional” search engines and emerging AI technology. While search engines may generate brief answers with clear citations, machine learning generates detailed answers with no citations despite its ample resources. In other words, AI might cause more source confusion because there are no sources to be confused with. However, this ignorance might be worth it for enhanced quality of information to turn a quick tidbit into a well-versed topic. Just make sure to fact check ChatGPT and find additional sources when your research really counts!
Why it happens
Source confusion stems from our inability to correctly evaluate where information comes from. We tend to create vivid mental images of things or events described to us by others. As time passes, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between what is a valid primary source (our own memory) and what might be a questionable secondary source (our memory of others’ memories). It is highly contested as to whether the new memory completely replaces the old memory, or merely pushes it down so it is harder to recall.7
Source confusion often causes imagination inflation, where visualizing an event that never really happened increases our certainty that it did. Information conjured by our imagination is stored in our memory and might later be mistakenly recalled as something that actually happened to us. It is no surprise that the more often we imagine something, the more likely it is that we will mistake it as our lived experience.8
Another aspect that may impact imagination inflation is level of specificity. Brown and Marsh discovered that participants were more likely to report visiting an unfamiliar college campus if they had been previously exposed to mundane photos, rather than unique ones.1 These results suggest we are more likely to mistake vague information as belonging to our memory. Meanwhile, we can easily distinguish specific details as belonging to our own lives or belonging somewhere else.
Why it is important
It is unsettling that a large part of what makes you who you are could be experiences that are not really yours. After all, we develop a stable sense of self by assembling our memories into one cohesive narrative. Source confusion disrupts this process by making us doubt the validity of our recollection—especially with childhood memories.
When recovering a forgotten memory, it can be difficult to determine whether it was initially repressed or inserted into our consciousness by a different source. This uncertainty becomes particularly challenging when reflecting on traumatic events such as child abuse, for the accuracy of our recollection impacts both ourselves and any other parties involved.
Not only does source confusion shape how we construct our understanding of ourselves, but of the world around us. Since we disassociate content from its original source, we become confident in all of our knowledge despite not being equally confident in all of our sources. For example, while you may trust the Washington Post more than a Facebook meme, the information gleaned from each gains similar validity later on. In short, forgetting our sources leads us further away from being able to grasp reality.
How to avoid it
Since source confusion is an inherent tendency, it is virtually impossible to avoid. However, we can learn to be more suspicious of where our sources come from. This does not mean doubting every single memory we have ever had (because that would only lead to mass hysteria). Instead, we can learn to question where the information we remember originated from, and be open to the fact that our gut instinct about its source may be wrong.
This healthy skepticism is especially relevant when recollection bears heavy consequences on the lives of others, such as in the legal system. Witnesses may want to seriously consider their account before going up to the front of a courtroom, for their testimony will help decide the fate of the suspect. Equally important, attorneys and other legal professionals should be discouraged from asking leading questions that may sway the memory of the witness towards exaggerating certain details or forgetting others.
It’s worth mentioning that source misattribution can actually be a useful tool by allowing us to apply lessons from experiences that we have not personally encountered to our own lives.9 Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter notes how source confusion underlines humans’ extraordinary cognitive plasticity. We can transfer specific episodic memories into generalized semantic ones, so we can quickly apply information to any given situation without recalling how we initially acquired it. This detachment helps us with swift problem-solving and skill acquisition, even if it sometimes comes at the cost of source confusion.
How it all started
The empirical foundation of source confusion is rooted in research surrounding the misinformation effect: when misleading information distorts our recollection of an event.10 American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus pioneered many experiments during the 1970s investigating this effect on witnesses in a forensics context. For example, Loftus found that participants were much more likely to mistakenly report a yield sign instead of a stop sign in a traffic accident video if the experimenters’ questions prompted them to do so.7
Maria Zarazoga and Sean Lane later extended upon Loftus’ original concept of the misinformation effect, specifically focussing on our ability to monitor the source of our distorted memories, rather than just the distortion itself. They proposed the term “source misattribution,” defined as when “a memory derived from one source… is misattributed to another source.”7 In particular, source misattribution varies depending on two factors: how similar the original source and misleading episodes are, and how relevant the recalled details are to the current situation.
Zaragoza and Lane conducted the first studies testing source misattribution by having participants watch a film of an event, such as a maintenance man stealing twenty dollars. Directly afterward, participants read a narrative description recapping the video but embedding objects that weren’t originally there, such as a pack of bubblegum. At the end, they were given a surprise quiz about the details of the crime scene and asked if they “saw” or “read” those objects being there. Most participants mistakenly reported seeing the objects in the video, even if they had only read about them in the description. These experiments demonstrate how easily misinformation we hear about an event incorporates itself into our visual representation of that memory.
Example 1 – Recovering “repressed memories”
In 1986, a woman named Nadean Cool recovered dozens of bizarre childhood memories while in psychotherapy, including being in a satanic cult, eating babies, having sex with animals, and even watching her friend get murdered. As it turns out, these weren’t her memories at all but planted in her head during hypnosis. Cool ended up suing her psychiatrist for $2.4 million dollars, but it was never enough to erase the trauma these fake memories inflicted—since they felt as vivid as real ones.10
Unfortunately, Cool is not alone. Many people have developed graphic memories of childhood abuse, only later realizing their clinician fabricated them. It does not help that therapeutic techniques like psychoanalysis encourage patients to be vulnerable and open themselves up to recovering repressed memories, leaving them even more susceptible to source confusion.
The problem is that it is often difficult to prove a memory is false when decades have passed and any evidence has disappeared. This is especially true when the memory is much more realistic than being part of a fictitious baby-eating satanic cult. Regardless of their truth, false memories impact individuals convinced they experienced abuse and perpetrators pinned for imaginary crimes. This is an important reminder to check your therapist’s credentials before your next appointment!
Example 2 – Accidental plagiarism
Another undesirable effect of source confusion is accidental plagiarism.5 Imagine trying to work on a paper, but consumed by writer’s block, the page remains blank. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you think of the perfect opening line. It is as if the words were already written for you… because they were, you reluctantly realize, when you see them staring back at you in the book you were reading earlier that day.
Unfortunately, this form of source confusion is a common frustration that professionals in creative fields face. After being struck by a satisfying sentence or tune, the “author” will misattribute the source as themselves, genuinely believing that their work is original and they have never encountered it before. However, after publishing, the author experiences a rude awakening when thousands of critics remind them where the content is originally from.
Sometimes, accidental plagiarism can even lead to lawsuits. A famous example is when George Harrison was found guilty of “subconsciously” copying The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” in his hit “My Sweet Lord.” Listen to both songs back to back, and you will notice the tunes are exactly the same—down to the background vocals! The judge concluded that Harrison “knew this combination of sounds would work because it already had worked in a song his conscious mind did not remember”.11 Obviously, the judge understood this was a powerful case of source confusion at work!
What is it
Source confusion happens when we accidentally mistake memories as coming from somewhere else. These small blips in memory happen daily, such as confusing the faces we see, the places we go, and the stories we hear. However, source confusion is also the root of systematic issues, such as false eyewitness testimonies that disproportionately affect minority groups.
Why it happens
Source confusion stems from our inability to correctly evaluate where information comes from. Over time, the vivid mental images of stories others tell replace our recollections. Source confusion can cause imagination inflation, where visualizing an event that never happened increases our certainty that it did.
Example 1 – Recovering “repressed memories”
Many people like Nadean Cool recover traumatic memories in therapy, only to realize their clinician fabricated them. Psychoanalysis encourages patients to be open to recovering memories, increasing their vulnerability to source confusion.
Example 2 - Accidental plagiarism
Source confusion sometimes causes artists and writers to genuinely believe their work is original when they encountered it elsewhere before. Accidental plagiarism can even lead to lawsuits, such as when George Harrison was found guilty of “subconsciously” copying The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” in his hit “My Sweet Lord.”
How to avoid it
While it is impossible to avoid source misattribution completely, we should make sure to check the sources of our memories where it counts most. In addition, legal professionals should resist asking leading questions that may sway eyewitness testimony. It is important to note that source confusion demonstrates our extraordinary cognitive plasticity to apply information to our own lives that we have not personally experienced.
Related TDL articles
This article is a comprehensive overview of the misinformation effect, a foundational concept for understanding source confusion. In particular, the author discusses research by Elizabeth Loftus, whose forensics experiments first empirically exposed the suggestibility of memory.
Source confusion can coax people into believing fake news. In this article, Lorenzo Flores explores other reasons as to why misinformation is spreading so quickly, and pushes for institutional measures to warn users about potentially malicious content.