False-memory study recruits Bugs

Seattle — Warner Brothers cartoon icon Bugs Bunny played a pivotal role in a study of false memory and the power of suggestive advertising.

In a study reported by Seattle researchers Monday, fully 30 percent of people shown a fake print ad of Bugs in front of Disneyland recalled shaking his hand when they visited there — although he is a Warner Bros., not Disney, character.

University of Washington memory researchers Jacquie Pickrell and Elizabeth Loftus divided 120 volunteers into four groups. The subjects were told they were going to evaluate advertising copy, fill out several questionnaires and answer questions about a trip to Disneyland.

As for the one-third who ‘remembered’ meeting Bugs — “that was impossible because Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. character and wouldn’t be in any Walt Disney Co. advertisements,” Pickrell, a graduate student, told United Press International.

“It’s not that these people were unsure of whether they had met Bugs or not,” she explained. “They were asked whether they remembered or knew that they had met him at Disneyland — and they were sure they had.”

She added, “The frightening thing about this study is that it suggests how easily a false memory can be created.”

The findings will be presented this week at the annual meeting the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition in Kingston, Ontario.

“The visual association in this study fits in the general category of ‘critical lure’ used in advertisement or to generate false memories,” said Duke University neuroscientist Dr. Roberto Cabeza.

He recently presented data on how the brain’s memory center distinguishes true memories from false recollections of events that might have occurred, but actually didn’t.

Cabeza told UPI the research involved volunteers who had their brains scanned by MRI while watching a videotape in which two speakers recited lists of associated words, such as “water,” “ice,” “wet,” “dark” and “freeze.” The subjects were later presented lists of words that included the originally presented word, but also such related words as “cold” that were not actually presented before.

“Many of them were sure they had heard the words that weren’t spoken,” he said.

Cabeza said the Bugs Bunny cartoon figure was linked in people’s minds not necessarily with Disneyland, but with the generic classification of cartoons. That link leads them to create a false memory based on the association at that level.

“There are many variables, we have found, but the most critical is association and the number of cues presented. It’s a standard paradigm in memory research. This study shows it applies to visual cues as well,” he told UPI.

In the Seattle study, one group read a generic Disneyland ad that mentioned no cartoon characters. The second group was given the same copy, but a five-and-a-half foot-tall cardboard Bugs was propped in a corner of the interview room. The third read the fake Disneyland ad featuring Bugs Bunny in front of Disneyland, and the fourth group read both the bogus advertising copy and saw the cardboard rabbit.

This time 30 percent of the people in the Bugs group later said they remembered or knew they had met Bugs Bunny when they visited Disneyland and 40 percent of the people in the double exposure group reported the same thing.

“Our next project is to expose groups to the same different cues and then question them on or two weeks later to see if the false memory rates are higher or lower. I suspect they’ll be even higher,” Pickerel told UPI.

People in the experiment who were exposed to the false advertising were also more likely to relate Bugs Bunny to other things at Disneyland not suggested in the ad, such as seeing Bugs and Mickey Mouse together, she said.

“It’s like an advertisement of ‘simpler times’ that shows small town America. A number of consumers are say they remember that time even if they never lived in a small town or viewed life as simple. It’s the cue they relate to, not the specific experience,” she said.


UPI Medical Writer Kurt Samson in Washington
Monday, 11 June 2001 19:03 (ET)