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Researchers Investigate Link Between Bilingualism and False Memories

Researchers Investigate Link Between Bilingualism and False Memories

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HSE University researchers have discovered that false information in one’s native and second languages contribute equally to the formation of false memories. The study, entitled ‘False Memories in Native and Foreign Languages’, has been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Say, for example, you are in another country on holiday and happen to witness a shop being robbed. The next day, you give a witness statement to the police. Could you be affected by false memories when recounting the event in a foreign language?

When dealing with witnesses, police detectives are aware of the fact that people’s memories of events can be inconsistent. New information and insight can alter one’s recollections, resulting in what is known as false memories.

One might suppose that people are less susceptible to forming false memories when examining information in a foreign language, as it requires more cognitive effort. The team of researchers from HSE University decided to conduct an online experiment to investigate how exactly false memories are formed in such circumstances.

Each of the 56 participants of the study was a native Russian speaker with an intermediate or higher level of English. They were shown a brief clip of someone stealing from a car, then asked to complete a four-minute arithmetic exercise to divert their attention. The subjects then read accounts of the theft by two ‘witnesses,’ one describing the event in Russian, the other in English. Both texts contained false information.

Scenes from the video of the theft. Two men get out of their cars, then one of them takes something from the other car.
Source: Dolgoarshinnaia A. and Martin-Luengo B. (2021) False Memories in Native and Foreign Languages. Front. Psychol.

After watching the video and reading the two texts, the subjects were asked to answer a number of questions in Russian about whether a certain event occurred in the original video, and whether it was mentioned in either of the two texts. The subjects were also asked to rate how confident they were in their answers.

This was used to determine the influence of the misinformation effect—the degree to which false information obtained after watching the video distorted the subjects’ recollections of the original event. The researchers also assessed the source misattribution effect, which concerns how frequently the subjects mixed up whether a certain fact originated in the English or Russian text.

The researchers found that overall, the misinformation effect was equal for the Russian and English texts—in other words, that the false information contained in both texts had an equal impact on the subjects’ recollections. What’s more, the subjects frequently misattributed information from the English text to its Russian counterpart.

The results suggest that information processing in people who speak two languages may differ depending on the language the information is presented in.

Aleksandra Dolgoarshinnaia, one of the authors of the article and Research Assistant at the Centre for Cognition & Decision Making at HSE University

‘Despite the fact that language did not have the expected impact on the degree of the misinformation effect, the results suggest that information processing in bilingual people may differ depending on the language the information is received from. Such differences could cause certain memory errors (such as the source misattribution effect), but not others (such as the misinformation effect). Furthermore, these processes may differ even in bilingual people depending on their level of second language proficiency. We observed that subjects with a more advanced command of English more frequently accepted false information obtained from English sources to be true. That said, these preliminary results require further testing.’

The results contribute to a greater understanding of information processing and memory function in bilingual people. The number of people in the world who speak two and more languages continues to grow, but much remains unknown about the effects of being bilingual on cognitive functions and their possible consequences. For example, memory errors can lead to wrongful convictions in legal proceedings. Learning more about how and when such errors occur could help improve the legal process and refine approaches to dealing with bilingual witnesses in order to minimize occurrences of false testimony.

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