Complementarity in False Memory Illusions

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Abstract

For some years, the DRM illusion has been the most widely studied form of false memory. The consensus theoretical interpretation is that the illusion is a reality reversal, in which certain new words (critical distractors) are remembered as though they are old list words rather than as what they are—new words that are similar to old ones. This reality-reversal interpretation is supported by compelling lines of evidence, but prior experiments are limited by the fact that their memory tests only asked whether test items were old. We removed that limitation by also asking whether test items were new-similar. This more comprehensive methodology revealed that list words and critical distractors are remembered quite differently. Memory for list words is compensatory: They are remembered as old at high rates and remembered as new-similar at very low rates. In contrast, memory for critical distractors is complementary: They are remembered as both old and new-similar at high rates, which means that the DRM procedure induces a complementarity illusion rather than a reality reversal. The conjoint recognition model explains complementarity as a function of three retrieval processes (semantic familiarity, target recollection, and context recollection), and it predicts that complementarity can be driven up or down by varying the mix of those processes. Our experiments generated data on that prediction and introduced a convenient statistic, the complementarity ratio, which measures (a) the level of complementarity in memory performance and (b) whether its direction is reality-consistent or reality-reversed.

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