17 Illustrating the Value of Research | Jennifer Ackil

Currently I am directing my attention toward two lines of research that aim to examine different aspects of human memory processes. The first stems from my broad interest in source monitoring (the processes by which people identify the origin of their memories) and the specific application of theories regarding this process to the suggestibility of eyewitness memory in adults and children. The second comes from my interest in autobiographical memory and the way negative and traumatic events may impact the recollections of children and adults as they work together and separately to recall the past. I will discuss each of these programs of research in turn.

Eyewitness Memory and Suggestibility. Much of the scientific literature on eyewitness suggestibility has focused on a particular type of suggestive interview, namely, those where the interviewer provides or “implants” a false memory by suggesting some piece of misinformation. For example, the interviewer might suggest to participants who witnessed a house theft that the thief had a gun, when in fact he had no weapon. Yet forensic interviews are not restricted to situations where an interviewer suggests false or misleading information to the witness. In many real-world investigative interviews, the interviewer attempts to elicit from the witness information that will support the interviewer’s hypothesis about what happened in order to complete an investigation or convict a suspect. This may lead to a coercive interview style where the interviewer presses the witness to provide information about events or people the witness does not remember or that never existed. In such cases, the witness may be forced to speculate and fabricate information in order to satisfy the interviewer’s demands. Of particular concern is the possibility that witnesses who are pressed to knowingly fabricate details under these circumstances might later forget that they were the source of this information and thus, develop false memories for their own fabrications. Within the context of my early research, I developed a new paradigm for assessing this possibility and established for the first time that witnesses who are forced to deliberately fabricate information are likely to develop false memories for the events they had earlier knowingly fabricated – a finding now referred to as the “forced fabrication effect.” That this original finding has been cited over 50 times in the journal articles tracked by Social Science Citation Index was featured in a Trends in Cognitive Science article and The Oxford Handbook of Memory, and has made its way into the popular press, are indications that it makes an important contribution to the field. For this reason, it is an effect that I continue to investigate with the long-term goal of uncovering the cognitive mechanisms that contribute to this unique type of false memory error.

It is worth noting that the paradigm employed in this line of research is extremely labor-intensive. It requires that research volunteers be tested individually in a minimum of two 20-to 25-minute sessions. In the first session volunteers view a film (that serves as the witnessed event) and subsequently complete a one-on-one interview (during which the forced fabrication occurs). In the second session, which occurs either one-or two-weeks later, participants’ are tested individually on their memory for the original witnessed event. Each experiment typically includes between 75 and 100 participants and as is the case in all of Psychology, it is rare to publish a study reporting the results of fewer than two experiments and most include three. Whereas the downside of this work is that it can take multiple years to complete data collection and analysis alone, the upside is that there are lots of opportunities for undergraduates to collaborate at whatever level they choose. I am fortunate to have had a continuous stream of student interest ranging from those who volunteer only to assist with data collection to those who are involved in analyses, interpretation and presentation of results. Moreover, my research has served as a springboard for a number of honors students (see vitae for student honors research) who ultimately explored various memory questions of their own that emerged from their work in my lab.It is also important to note that in contrast to the enthusiastic claims of my high school science teacher, not every experiment is equally interesting. Those that do not produce statistically significant results are simply not publishable. Thus, there are many experiments in psychology that produce results that never make it out of the lab. Despite my own collection of such “failed” experiments, I have a record of having successfully completed a number of studies that have since my tenure award been published in peer-reviewed journals of psychological science. For instance, in collaboration with colleagues at Kent State University, I designed and conducted a study aimed at examining the influence of interviewer feedback on the development of false memories. The results of this study(involving over 192 college-age participants) demonstrated that confirmatory feedback from an interviewer increased false memory for forcibly fabricated events, increased confidence in those false memories, and increased the likelihood that participants would freely report their fabrications 1-to 2-months later. The results of this work, presented at the 1999 meeting of the Psychonomic Society and published in Psychological Science, a flagship journal of experimental psychology, have been very well received and are beginning to make their way into Introductory and Cognitive Psychology textbooks. Furthermore, it is worth noting that much of the early work to develop the materials and pre-test procedures employed in the study proper was done in collaboration with Gustavus psychology majors. This work alone involved well over 80 research participants each of whom was individually tested in two separate experimental sessions. The findings of this pilot work served as the basis for a Gustavus psychology honors thesis and were publicly presented by one of our students at the Minnesota Undergraduate Psychology Conference.

Having reliably demonstrated in several experiments across various conditions that forced fabrication can be a potent suggestive interview technique naturally led to a question of both practical and theoretical import: Is forced fabrication more or less likely than memory implantation to produce false memory? To this end I designed and conducted with the assistance of Gustavus student collaborators, a set of three experiments to address this question. This work included individually testing each of over 340 volunteers in two separate experimental sessions that occurred either one-or two-weeks apart and has provided a rich set of data with a host of interesting findings. The collective findings of this work demonstrate that the relative incidence of false memory for forcibly fabricated events depends on the way memory is assessed. When participants (all of whom are warned that they were previously asked misleading questions) are queried explicitly about the source of their memories, false memories are greater following implantation relative to forced fabrication. When participants are simply asked to provide an account of the witnessed event this pattern is reversed: Participants are more likely to include in their narrative accounts the events they previously resisted fabricating relative to the suggestions implanted by the interviewer.

This leaves open the logical next question: What are the mechanisms responsible for this memory error? My current work in the lab aims to address this question by assessing the extent to which self-generation contributes to the effect. To this end I have collaborated with Gustavus research assistants to conduct a set of experiments that compares the incidence of false memory when witnesses are forced to generate their own misinformation (e.g., “what kind of hat was Delaney wearing?”) relative to when they are forced to choose misinformation from incorrect alternatives (“what kind of hat was Delaney wearing, a baseball hat or a fishing hat?”). We are also examining whether the feedback participants receive (either confirmatory: “that’s right, baseball hat is the correct answer” or neutral: “ok, baseball hat”) might interact with this manipulation. Data collection for the first experiment is complete and includes over 80 volunteer participants who were each tested individually in two experimental sessions one week apart. The results which were presented at the 2003 meeting of the Psychonomic Society indicate that the act of self-generating misinformation leads to greater false memory only when participants’ self-generated responses were reinforced by interviewer feedback. A second experiment employing a different type of memory test (narrative recall) was initiated last spring (2009) and is ongoing. Preliminary results from 72 participants were presented at the 2009meeting of the Psychonomic Society, and indicate that in the absence of confirmatory feedback, forced choice responses were more likely to emerge in participants’ subsequent event narratives than forced fabrications, a pattern that was reversed in the face of previous interviewer feedback. It is worth noting that data analysis in this latter experiment requires the verbatim transcription and coding of every individual participant’s interview and thus, is very time intensive. Nonetheless, my intention is to complete data collection and transcription by the end of the spring 2010 semester leaving the summer months ripe for further analyses and writing.

That most studies in psychology raise as many questions as they answer certainly holds true for my program of research. Thus, I have plans in mind to address a new set of questions. While this research is still in the early stages of development (materials and procedures will need to be created and piloted before the work can begin in earnest), it will ultimately examine aspects of participants’ resistance to fabricate misinformation and the subsequent impact of this resistance on false memory development. Whereas one might assume that resisting an interviewer’s demands to fabricate (which is not unusual) might enhance participants’ memory for having generated the false information and thus, protect them from subsequent false memory development, the results from my lab in this regard are mixed. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that in some instances resistance can actually increase the incidence of false memory. Addressing this potential paradox is thus, a logical next step.

Autobiographical Memory. A second ongoing line of research in my lab focuses on children’s autobiographical memory. This research began shortly after the March 1998 St. Peter tornadoes and emerged from an interest in understanding how children come to comprehend and remember traumatic life events. Although there is a large body of research that has examined young children’s memory for positive events (e.g., trips to the zoo, birthday parties), there are surprisingly few studies that have examined memory for negative events and at the time of my initial work, none that had directly compared memory for traumatic events and non-traumatic events in the same individuals. Yet understanding how children make sense of and remember traumatic events is of great theoretical and practical value. Because my graduate training was in cognitive psychology (not child development), I sought the expert advice of developmental memory researcher Dr. Patricia Bauer (then a faculty member at the University of Minnesota’s renowned Institute of Child Development, now Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Psychology and Senior Associate Dean of Research at Emory University) whose enthusiasm for the initial project has fueled a productive collaboration that continues to this day.

Initially, we designed and carried out a study that involved 33 mother-child pairs from the St. Peter community who generously volunteered to cooperate with us on this topic of mutual concern. Among other things, the mothers and children who participated allowed us to visit them in their homes (or elsewhere if they had been displaced by the storm) to record their conversations about the March ’98 tornado and several other unique nontraumatic events. These conversations were elicited and recorded both 6-months and 10-months following the tornado and have provided an extremely rich set of data that has been used to address a number of different questions. In our first analysis we examined the very simple question of whether and how mother-child memory conversations about the tornado might be different from those of nontraumatic events. Overall, the results revealed that mother-child reminiscing about the traumatic experience was longer, more narratively coherent, and more complete than their recollection of nontraumatic events, differences that largely endured nearly one year after the events occurred. Various aspects of these results were presented at the 1999 and 2001 biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development and at the International Conference on Memory in Barcelona, Spain and were published collectively in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. They have also become recognized for the contribution to the literature on memory for traumatic events and have just recently began to be included in General Psychology textbooks in this regard.

Subsequent analyses examined the mother-child recollections with a focus on the language used to describe internal states (e.g., emotions, cognition, physiological states) and the extent to which mothers’ use of this language influenced subsequent use by their children. Interestingly, the use of internal states language in conversations about the tornado was largely comparable to that employed in conversations about non-tornado events. The data also revealed that children’s mention of emotion nearly one-year post tornado, came to approximate that used by their mothers 6-months previously suggesting that children learn from their mothers how to remember and talk about the emotions they experienced. The results of this work were published in a special issue of Journal of Cognition and Development that focused on children’s memory for traumatic experiences.

In a third project we further examined the ways that mothers’ manner of reminiscing impacted children’s memory contributions both immediately and over time. Whereas developmental research has established that children are socialized both in the manner of creating and sharing autobiographical narratives for positive and affectively neutral experiences, it was unknown whether this finding would generalize to negative and traumatic events. Our project filled this gap in the literature and demonstrated among other things, that relations between maternal narrative style and children’s subsequent memory contributions were apparent when remembering the tornado. Thus, the socialization of autobiographical remembering is not restricted to positive experiences but rather occurs across a variety of event types.

Just prior to the ten-year anniversary of the tornado, I revisited 20 of the original mother-child pairs who graciously agreed to again share their memories with us. Among other things, mothers and children at this stage of the project independently reported their recollections of the events they had shared with us nearly ten years prior. With the assistance of graduate students in the Bauer lab, these interviews have to date been transcribed and coded for the presence of various details and I am in very early stages of data analysis.

Summary. To remain “alive” and active as a research and scholar is critical. In addition to satisfying my own personal curiosities and commitment to the scientific study of human memory and cognition, doing so provides the energy and enthusiasm I find necessary for teaching. Moreover, it provides a model for students that illustrates among other things, the value of research and continued commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and understanding in one’s chosen field.


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