professor and chair of the Psychology Department, led a study titled the
study, "Do you remember proposing marriage to the Pepsi Machine? False
recollections from a campus walk," which appeared in a recent issue of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
Soda Machine Betrothal or False Memory?
Did you propose marriage to a Pepsi machine two
weeks ago, or did you just imagine it?
That's one of the questions John Seamon, professor and chair of the
Psychology Department, asked participants in a study designed to determine
if memories, and, in particular, bizarre false memories, could be implanted.
"We were interested in seeing if merely imagining different events could,
over time, lead people to sometimes mistake imagination for recollection,"
says Seamon, who worked with co-authors Morgan Philbin and Liza Harrison,
both undergraduates at Wesleyan when the study was initiated.
“Given that all of us sometimes mix up the source of our memories, we
wondered whether people would misremember bizarre actions as well as
familiar actions,” Seamon says. “We thought the best way to do this was to
do a study that had participants engage in actions or imagine actions that
were either familiar or intentionally unusual.”
The study, aptly titled, "Do you remember proposing marriage to the Pepsi
Machine? False recollections from a campus walk," appeared in a recent issue
of Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
Which brings us to people on bended knee asking for lifetime commitments
from Pepsi machines – or not, but imagining it – depending on instructions.
Those instructions came during a series of walks around the Wesleyan campus.
During the walks, 40 participants were asked to stop at a total of 48
separate locations. At each location the experimenter read an action
statement; participants were asked to perform the action, watch the
experimenter perform it, vividly imagine themselves performing it for 10
seconds or spend 10 seconds vividly imagining the experimenter performing
Of the 48 action statements involved, 24 involved familiar activities such
as, "Check the Pepsi machine for change" or "Wave from the top of those
steps." But the other 24 covered more bizarre actions, including "Recite the
balcony scene lines from Romeo and Juliet," "Pat this dictionary and ask it
how it’s doing," as well as "Get down on one knee and propose marriage to
that Pepsi machine."
One day later, the same participants went to 36 locations along the previous
route. This included 24 locations from the first session, including 12
locations where actions were previously performed, 12 locations where
actions where previously imagined, along with 12 new locations which
featured actions that were not used before. This time around, the
participants only imagined each action, and they rated their images for
At no time during either walking session was any mention made of a memory
Two weeks later, participants were gathered and asked questions about the 72
action statements from the two campus walks. Roughly 12 percent of the
merely imagined actions were “remembered” as performed. The results may
surprise some, but not Seamon.
"This is consistent with similar studies that have been done in the
laboratory. We moved it into the real world," Seamon says. "Even when
presented with bizarre actions such as the proposal to a soda machine, after
a couple weeks, some participants had false memories inspired by their
Seamon adds that these studies point to the danger of using techniques such
as guided imagery in the course of psychotherapy to recover lost memories.
People can be confident about their recollections and accurate, and they can
be confident and wrong.
"Without some corroboration, we just can’t tell the difference," Seamon
says. "Clearly, when accuracy is critical, we should always seek some
verifiable evidence that supports our recollections. Our memories are
usually, but not always, a pretty faithful guide to our past. Otherwise,
we’d be in real trouble as a species."
By David Pesci, director of Media Relations