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The "Lost in the Mall" technique, formerly known as the Familial Informant Narrative Procedure, is a procedure which can be used to create false memories. The technique was first developed by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus in an effort to explain how normal people can claim to have recovered memories of experiences like alien abduction or satanic ritual abuse.
In a ground-breaking experiment, Loftus and her student Jacqueline Pickrell gave participants short narratives, all supposedly provided by family members, describing childhood events, and asked them to recall the events. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, one of the narratives was entirely false. It told of the person, as child of 5 or 6, being lost in a shopping mall for an extended period of time before finally being rescued by an elderly person and reunited with his or her family. In the study, nearly 25% of the small sample of participants reported to be able to remember this event, even though it never actually occurred. Many people were able to provide embellishing details that were not supplied by the investigators. Loftus interpreted this to mean that the very act of imagining the events led to the creation of false memories.
One potential criticism of the initial study, which created the false memory of having been lost in a shopping mall, is that being lost in a store as a child is a common occurrence. Perhaps the 25% who recalled the false memory had actually been lost in a mall as children, and were recalling that event. However, in subsequent studies performed by a variety of researchers, the lost-in-the-mall technique has been used to generate false memories of such extreme events as:
- taking a hot-air balloon ride
- being hospitalized overnight
- having a bizarre accident at a family wedding
- having nearly drowned but been rescued by a lifeguard
- being the victim of a vicious animal attack
The "lost in a shopping mall" study, and others inspired by it, have been cited to support claims that psychotherapists can implant memories of false autobiographical information of childhood trauma in their patients.
- Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720–725.
- Loftus, E.F. (2003) Make-Believe Memories (PDF)
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