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Scientists May Be Able to Curb Drinking by Implanting False Memories

Update Date: Apr 12, 2013 01:54 PM EDT

For many people who have problems with alcohol, there may be a relatively easy solution. Researchers believe that planting false memories of a negative experience with alcohol may help people cut back and drink less. In fact, while that may seem like a surprising and drastic solution, it is surprisingly easy to create false memories - and has been done in dozens of studies. In fact, by inserting personal details or having family members swear up and down that it is true, as many as 40 percent of people can be convinced that an event did occur, even if it never existed.

According to Time magazine, much of this research has been performed by University of California, Irvine professor Elizabeth Loftus. After spending years studying false memories, she decided that she would study the repercussions. An early study placed a false memory of a bad reaction with contaminated peach yogurt in people's heads. Afterwards, those same people would eat less contaminated peach yogurt.

Planting false memories may seem like a diabolical plan of an evil scientist. According to Loftus, though, the research could be applied in a positive manner. The researchers asked 187 undergraduate psychology students to detail extensively their experiences with alcohol before the age of 16. They were also asked to explain how sure that they were that these experiences had occurred. Then the students were asked to rate 63 kinds of foods and beverages, including those like rum and vodka.

A week after the initial survey, the students returned. They were given personalized profiles based on their answers; however, for some, the answers had been changed to say that they had destructive experiences with rum or vodka. Then the researchers asked the students to explain the destructive experiences of these false memories. If they could not remember, the researchers asked them to explain what may have happened. Then the students were asked to fill out the original questionnaire again.

Most of the students recognized to some degree that the stories were false. However, almost 20 percent of students developed false memories. Though none of the students had issues with alcohol, they were more likely to develop false memories if they had begun drinking alcohol earlier in their teen years.

The research is controversial; many find it unethical for psychologists to implant false memories, no matter the rationale. Even Professor Loftus admits that it would be easier to implant false memories to encourage people to drink more, rather than less.

The study was published in Acta Psychologica.

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