The Effects of Authority on the Acceptance of Misinformation
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HOWERY, T. M., DOBBS, D.K. (2000). The Effects of Authority on the Acceptance of Misinformation. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 3. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

The Effects of Authority on the Acceptance of Misinformation

Sponsored by: PHIL WANN (
The effect of authority on the acceptance of misinformation was examined. A total of 25 students in two different classes were exposed to a statement supposedly completed by their professor, concerning an alleged theft. One class was subjected to authority pressure from a security guard to accept the misinformation. The other class was asked by the same security guard, now with a friendly demeanor, to review the statement and sign if they agreed. All subjects signed the misinformation statements. It appears the effect of authority is stronger than we had hypothesized, since all signed, even though some added disclaimer notations.

Witnesses can exhibit strong belief in their memories, even when those memories are verifiably false (Weingart, Toland and Loftus, 1994). Also, the status of the interviewer can influence the response of subjects to misleading information (Spanos, 1996). There has also been some speculation that false memories may be recalled if pressure is exerted by an authority figure. With this in mind, we hypothesized that an individual will be more likely to obey authority suggestibility and accept false misinformation if presented as factual by an authority figure, even though the individual`s memory recall of the facts may be different. Wright (1995) noted that when interviewed in a friendly manner, a witness may be more confident in recall. When badgered by an official interviewer, witnesses may become rattled and change their memory recall. He believed that inconsistencies generally indicated inaccurate witness testimony. Wright also stated that forced choice instructions intensifies the effect of the non-verbal cues revealed by the target person. Loftus (1980) stated that what researchers interested in memory really need to study are the consequences of the malleability of memory, and she indicated that the studies at that time suggested that memories are continually being altered, transformed, and distorted. In later published works, Loftus (1992) detailed the misinformation effect, stating that her research showed how memory recall can be altered when people incorporate new data and will recall false information as real memories. She indicated that the passage of time helped memories become modified, because the original memory trace begins to fade and the recollection later has discrepancies. She called this occurrence the discrepancy detection principle. Loftus (1992) found that if subjects were warned that they might receive misinformation, they were more likely to resist the influence of misinformation. The time lapse in between the warning and the presentation of the misinformation was a key factor. If subjects were told to repeat the misinformation out loud, they were also more likely to believe it to be true. She stated that misinformation was the result of not properly encoding information, so subjects couldn`t recall it and would use the misinformation as a substitute for memories they did not have stored. To test this theory, Weingart, Toland and Loftus (1994) conducted research to see what impact on eyewitness memory would misleading or suggestive questions have, and to what extent witnesses would believe in a suggested memory. The results of these studies indicated that even when the demand characteristic interpretation is ruled out, subjects still often accept the misinformation. People genuinely believe in the suggested memories that they are reporting. In essence, witnesses can exhibit strong belief in their memories, even when those memories are verifiably false. The potential impact of repeated questioning of a witness was also examined in studies by Shaw, Bjork and Handal (1995). This study focused on retrieval-induced forgetting, the negative consequence of poor retrieval practices by police, investigators and attorneys. Shaw, et al.(1995) noted that witnesses may be asked about some items, but not about other factors, even though these factors may be important as well. Over time, since the witness was not asked initially about a certain memory, that memory trace is lost, and cannot be recalled later. Wright (1995) also addressed this issue of susceptibility of eyewitness reports to misleading post-event information, or misinformation. In his studies, he reviewed the explanations, methods and implications of the findings, for both cognitive psychology and judicial matters. Wright said several experiments have demonstrated that subjects who have errant postevent information suggested to them often report remembering this, as opposed to the information originally shown. Psychologists are divided about the explanations of the misinformation effect. Some believe that misinformation damages the original memory trace, leaving a blended representation. Some argue that other explanations are plausible, such as subjects failing to encode original information, or that both pieces of information coexist in separate memory traces (Wright, 1995). Findings in research conducted by Loftus and Pickrell (1995) also provided further support that memory can be altered via suggestion. Subjects were lead to believe that a story which was fabricated was a true event from their past, supplied by a family member. Following several memory recall sessions, many subjects believed that the hoax event really had happened. Spanos (1996) believed that people usually reconstruct a memory according to various factors, and the memory is influenced by experiences, attitudes and current concerns. False memories may be created through hypnotic regression or guided imagery instead of facilitating recall of such things. He compared the workings of memory to a videotape recorder. Research conducted over the past twenty years has shown clearly that the accuracy of subjects` memory reports of an event is impaired by exposure to misleading information after an event (Payne, Neuschatz, Lampinen & Lynn, 1997). The authors referred to memory as "illusions," noting that evidence is consistent with the position that the act of remembering involves the reperception of internal representations that are created from experiences with the world. Payne et al.(1997) noted that remembering involves making judgments and interpretations that are similar to the judgments and attributions involved in perceiving events as they unfold. Memory errors can be viewed as normal processes by which people interpret the world around them. In the last decade of the 20th century, researchers have seriously turned their attention to the question of how far can they actually go in creating entirely false memories which people would really believe happened (Loftus, 1997). Loftus stated that planting memories is not a particularly difficult thing to do. However, she acknowledged that researchers still have much to learn about the generalizability of the false memory findings obtained to date, as well as the degree of confidence subjects have in these memories and the characteristics of false memories created in these ways. Over the past quarter of a century, hundreds of studies have shown that misleading postevent information, or misinformation, affects people`s memories, altering or even creating memories (Wright & Loftus, 1998). The three main types of studies usually conducted include studies which alter response format, studies of conditions that maximize misinformation effects, and studies which have recorded reaction times or participant ratings of memory clarity. Wright and Loftus looked at conditions that maximized misinformation effects and studied the quality of resulting memories by measuring the same aspects of these memories. They also discussed source monitoring, in which participants retrieve a memory trace of the postevent, rather than retrieve the original event, and reconstructive memory, which assumes memory is a reconstruction, so the individual traces do not exist in isolation. Loftus (2000) described the conditions under which research volunteers reported having experienced events that never occurred, and discussed how false memories can form, exploring imagination as suggestion leading to recall of non-existent childhood events. This work was conducted in a study by Loftus, Feldman and Dashiell (1995) in which average adults were induced to produce detailed false memories about a childhood event that never occurred. This study raised two questions about the impact of misinformation on a person`s ability to accurately recall the past: does misinformation actually impair a person`s ability to remember details, and once the misinformation is accepted, and reported, do the subjects really believe in their misinformation memories? (Loftus, et al.,1995). Schreiber and Sergent (1998) conducted a study on the role that social demands play in witnesses accepting misinformation. They stated that after people witness a crime, they may be exposed to misleading information about details associated with it. Often times, due to repeated questioning by authorities, the repeated retrieval is impaired and misinformation blocks access to witnessed information. Social demands occur when people select the misinformation because they decide to comply with authority. Milgram (1969) studied the effect authority has on obedience and concluded that people react differently when pressured by authority. He stated when people agree with authority against their own opinion, it is because they feel that authority somehow has the rightful power to exercise control over them, that it is appropriate in the ordinary functioning of the social world. All of this lead us to the premise that we wanted to try to substantiate. With all the studies which have been conducted on misinformation, we felt that it is an accepted premise that misinformation can be planted in witnesses` memories. We also felt that most people will comply with authority when pressured. What we proposed to test was: What effect does an authority figure have on accepting a false statement of misinformation? The theory proposed was that pressure from an authority figure would increase false memory recall and acceptance of false information in our subjects. The hypothesis was that the experimental group with an authority figure encouraging the false misinformation acceptance would have a higher rate of false memory. This was to be substantiated by counting the number of responses who agreed with the false statements distributed during the experiment, asking for compliance with the authority figure on a theft account which is based on misinformation.


Participants. The participants were two different freshman college classes at Missouri Western State College, St. Joseph, MO. There were 15 students in one class, and 10 in the other class, with the same professor in both classes.

Materials. The apparatus used in the experiment included a wheeled utility cart, containing an overhead projector on the top shelf, and a large empty box on the bottom shelf. Also essential to the experiment was a simulated college security theft report containing misinformation of a theft incident, as reported by the professor.

Procedure. As a control procedure, the professor was not informed of the authority obedience factor. The blind was to ensure that the professor did not influence the students` responses. The professor was only told that the experiment was to study misinformation acceptance. Prior to the start of the first class, a tan colored wheeled utility cart was placed in the front part of the room. It contained an overhead projector on the top shelf and a large empty cardboard box on the bottom shelf. After students had assembled in the room, the professor took attendance and reminded students they were having a test. Test papers were distributed and then someone entered the room unobtrusively and removed the cart. At the beginning of the next class meeting, the professor announced that the removal of the equipment was not authorized, but was actually a theft. The professor then introduced a college security guard, and left the classroom. The security guard announced to the students that the professor had filed a theft report with his office and he needed each student to sign the form as collaborating witnesses. The guard appeared stern and imposing while addressing the class. The students were unaware at this time that the report contained several false misinformation statements by the professor concerning the theft incident. The forms were distributed and the security guard appeared impatient for the students to quickly sign and return these to him. Talking and questioning were discouraged by the security guard. In the second class, the same procedure was held concerning the attendance taking, distributing test papers and the same person removing the utility cart in the same manner.At the subsequent meeting of this class, the professor again made the announcement that the removal was a theft and introduced the same security guard. In this class, the security guard did not act as stern, but had a more relaxed, friendly demeanor. He told the students that he would appreciate their reading over a statement the professor had filed with his office and sign it if they were in agreement. It was the same statement with misinformation reported that the first class had received. Talking and questioning were again discouraged. The statements from the two different classes were kept separate and reviewed to note how many signed acceptances of the misinformation were received from each class, to determine if a correlation could be found, with more students in agreement when the authority figure exerted pressure for compliance. At the end of the experiment, the students and the professor were debriefed that the true purpose of the experiment was to study the effect authority had on accepting false misinformation. Participants were then asked if they had comments and questions.

We were surprised to learn after the data was collected that we had a ceiling effect; 100% of the students all signed their names to the bottom of the false theft report which contained misinformation. We had hypothesized that the majority of signatures would be from the class which received the pressure from the authority figure, the security guard. However, many of those who did sign the report also tried to rationalize their signatures of agreement to the false report by adding a notation disclaiming any actual knowledge of the theft, stating they were distracted because they were taking an exam. In the class which received pressure from the authority figure, 53.3% of the signatures were followed by some type of disclaimer statement expressing poor or no recall of the theft incident. In the class which did not receive the authority pressure, 40% of those signing the report added disclaimer notations.

The purpose of this study was to determine if authority has an influence on the acceptance of false misinformation statements. The data supported the effect of authority, but with surprising results, as we had hypothesized that there would be a greater difference between those signing the reports when influenced by authority, and those who did not receive the pressure from authority. One possible explanation for this is that we had too much authority. There was the subtle influence of the authority of the professor, who had supposedly completed the form with the facts, and she would be viewed by her students as a reliable authority to trust. Also, the mere presence of the security guard, regardless of whether he was stern or friendly in attitude, was an authority pressure to the students. This could be linked also to the role that social demands play in witnesses accepting misinformation as quoted earlier by Schreiber and Sergent (1998), that social demands occur when people feel they should comply with authority. It was interesting to note that several of those who signed their agreement to the false report then added their own notations concerning what they felt was the correct information. Several noted that the alleged thief was a female, not a male, and one noted that the thief did not wear eyeglasses, as the report stated. It was also interesting that not one person questioned or corrected the description of the items which were stolen; only the description of the thief was questioned. One student added a notation that if need be, he could definitely identify the thief if seen again. We recognize the weakness of having too small a sample size. A larger sample size would possibly have resulted in different percentages. The factor that the students were having an exam was something we were not able to control. We feel it was a weakness and detrimental to the study, as students were preoccupied and not as aware of the simulated theft as we would have liked them to be. A strength in the favor of this study was that the experiment was very simple and straightforward, and would be easy to replicate, which we would recommend to further explore the effects of authority on accepting misinformation. We would also recommend a follow-up study with this group to see if students, when presented with a blank theft report to complete, would recall the false information supplied on the original report, or would report what they truly recall from their own memory of the alleged theft incident.

Loftus, E. (2000). Suggestion, imagination and the transformation of reality. In Arthur A. Stone (Ed.), The science of self-report: Implications for research and practice (pp. 201-210). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Loftus, E. (1997). Memory for a past that never was. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 6, 60-65. Loftus, E. (1992). When a lie becomes memory`s truth: Memory distortion after exposure to misinformation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1, 121-123. Loftus, E. (1980). Memory, surprising new insights into how we remember and why we forget. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Loftus, E., Feldman, J. & Dashiell, R. (1995). In Daniel L. Schacter (Ed.) Memory distortions: How minds, brains, and societies reconstruct the past (pp 47-68). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Loftus, E. & Pickrell, J. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720-725. Milgram, S. (1969). Obedience to Authority. New York, NY: Harper & Row. Payne, D., Neuschatz, J., Lampinen, J. & Lynn, S. (1997). Compelling memory illusions: The Qualitative characteristics of false memories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 6, 56-60. Schreiber, T. & Sergent, S. (1998). The role of commitment in producing misinformation effects in eyewitness memory. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 5, 443-448. Shaw, J., Bjork, R., & Handal, A. (1995). Retrieval-induced forgetting in an eyewitness memory paradigm. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 2, 249-253. Spanos, N. (1996). Multiple identities & false memories. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Weingardt, K., Toland, H., & Loftus, E. (1994) Reports of suggested memories: Do people truly believe them? In David Frank Ross (Ed.), Adult eyewitness testimony: Current trends and developments (pp. 3-26). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Wright, D. (1995).Misinformation methodologies: Explaining the effects of errant information. In Graham Davis (Ed.) Psychology, law and criminal justice: International developments in research and practice (pp. 39-45). Berlin, Germany: Walter De Gruyter. Wright, D. & Loftus, E. (1998). How misinformation alters memories. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 71, 155-164.

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