A recent study by research groups at the University of Chicago has found that language is strongly related to the way our brains create false memories.
The study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology examines the specific role of multilingualism in relation to false memories.
It was widely believed that learning a new language may contribute to the creation of false memories due to different rules, tenses and scenarios – however Professor Boaz Keysar, Director of the Multilingualism and Decision-Making lab at U. Chicago argues that this is not the case.
What’s really interesting about what we find is it’s exactly the opposite,” said Keysar, “People have fewer false memories in their second language.”
The team hypothesized this could be due to a higher level of memory monitoring when processing a foreign language, along with the use of a less automatic and instinctual neurological system of reasoning to avoid linguistic mistakes.
Lead at U. Chicago’s Memory Research Lab, Professor David Gallo explains “When you’re using a second language, it activates this mindset of being more careful with your judgments and your decision making,” – “You might not even be aware that you’re doing this.”
Lead author and psychology Ph.D student Leigh Grant,who brought two U. Chicago research groups together added “This pushes back against the idea that, just because you’re using a foreign language it doesn’t mean every decision you make is going to be a worse one”.
To test their theory, the team took on two studies designed to plant false memories, partnering with U. Chicago’s Center in Beijing. In the first study, 120 native Mandarin Chinese speakers also proficient in English were given groups of related words in both languages.
In one scenario participants were given: “dream,” “snooze,” “bed,” “rest,” yet the word “sleep” was missing, in what researchers refer to as a ‘lure’. This is a common word purposely omitted to encourage the brain to fill in a gap, a likely scenario for the creation of a false memory.
Gallo said “Everybody makes that kind of inference,” – ” It’s hard to remember if ‘sleep’ was spoken, or if you just imagined it.”
Participants were later asked to recall which words they remembered and most importantly, which words were not on the list. This measured how well individuals were monitoring their memories.
“We found that people were less likely to falsely remember these missing words if they were presented in their secondary language compared to their native one,” Gallo said.
The second study looked at bilingualism in relation to the misinformation effect. This is when memory becomes altered by information you learned afterwards. This is a relevant factor in eyewitness testimonies in court, when conflicting reports can result in extreme consequences.
In this leg of the study, native Mandarin speaking participants watched silent videos of a crime. Afterwards, they listened to corresponding audio narration in both English and Mandarin. The stories were filled with details of the crime, some true and others false.
When asked to recall details, participants fell for the planted false memories in their native language as suggestions of extra guards or statues had become false memories. This wasn’t true in their second language.
“We actually found that when people got misleading information in their foreign language, they were more likely to catch it than when they got it in their native tongue,” Grant said.
Both studies supported the researchers’ hypothesis that people monitor their memories more closely when using a second language. This ‘foreign language effect’ could play a significant role in understanding memory and language in legal, political and everyday decision making, in addition to which information should be trusted, and when.
“These language effects can actually affect how we think about our own memories in a fundamental way,” Gallo said. “And influence whether you believe someone’s misinformation or not depending on what language they used.”
The researchers say they plan to test different language combinations in the future.
“I feel like we’re at the tip of the iceberg here,” Gallo said.