SNHU False Memory Studies Featured in Union Leader

Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Union Leader

HOOKSETT -- A Southern New Hampshire University psychology professor who has plumbed the depths of false memories has been named the 50th president of the New England Psychological Association earlier.

Dr. Peter Frost, 39, of Nashua, said he's excited to contribute more to the association, which is the regional branch of the national American Psychological Association, after he and his students had presented at annual conferences for the past eight years.

"I'm thrilled," Frost said. "The New England Psychological Association conference has a long tradition of being a student-friendly venue for scholarship. It's time to give back and play a more effective role in the future of the organization."

Frost was named president at the same NEPA conference earlier this month where his students presented findings on a false memory study they conducted on 55 student volunteers. The volunteers were asked to watch video of a crime scene and were later questioned about what they saw. Some volunteers were purposely asked questions containing false information.

According to Frost, the five personality traits most susceptible to false memories are neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

"A proneness to fantasy, or someone who has a vivid imagination and enjoys fantasizing, that was number one," he said.

Frost also said people who are highly trusting of others or who highly conform to social pressures around them are prone to false or suggestive memories.

"If you're more likely to go along with things, then it makes common sense," he said.

Frost said that when students present their findings at the NEPA conferences, it helps them realize how their work is connected to the real world.

"They seem more willing to discuss things when they see how it applies," he said.

The issues surrounding false memories have become important to countless court cases nationwide, especially after the perceived hysteria around child sexual abuse cases from the 1980s.

In many of those cases, experts said young children, after hours of interrogation, falsely told police and social workers they had been abused. Questions by investigators were worded in such ways that they placed ideas of abuse into the children, who finally said after lengthy scrutiny while away from their parents that such acts happened.

"Some of these people are extremely tired and feel threatened," Frost said. "Suggestive questioning or lying in an interview is what leads to false memories."

Frost said a large number of students who underwent suggestive questioning in his study made false statements about the crime scene they saw.

"It even happens with educated people," he said. "It doesn't make a difference in terms of suggestibility."

Frost cited the notorious Fells Acres day-care case from Malden, Mass., in which three family members who worked there were convicted on multiple child rape counts but were eventually released from prison after spending from eight to 20 years behind bars.

"We have court cases of people convicted of serious crimes based on a witness' memory. When you look at a case like Fells Acres, they were asked leading questions," he said.

Similar events happened in Bakersfield, Calif., in the mid 1980s when a newly elected district attorney, who ran a tough-on-crime campaign, had investigators arrest dozens of parents on child rape charges - nearly all of whom later had their convictions reversed after spending several years in prison, many for more than a decade. Their stories spawned the documentary "Witch Hunt," which was released earlier this year.

"The way we ask questions of children, and the way we do interviews right now, needs to be changed," Frost said. "I don't think we have a good handle on how wide the spread of this is."

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization committed to freeing the wrongfully convicted that was instrumental in getting many of the Bakersfield defendants released, said DNA testing has gotten 244 people exonerated nationwide.

Frost said he can remember examples of false memory in his own life. One was during an argument at the dinner table, when his mother recalled a baseball game he played in as a child where he got a standing ovation for the first time after arriving at second base. The problem, according to Frost, was that he hit a foul ball. He said the standing ovation happened because he usually couldn't hit the ball at all.

"She said I have a biased memory because I said I'm not good at sports," he said, adding, "the more you tell a story the more you believe it."

Frost has had many of his findings published in psychological publications, including the American Journal of Psychology and Memory and Cognition.

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