Misattribution, false recognition and the sins of memory

Daniel L. Schacter, Chad S. Dodson


Memory is sometimes a troublemaker. Schacter has classified memory's transgressions into seven fundamental ‘sins’: transience, absent–mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias and persistence. This paper focuses on one memory sin, misattribution, that is implicated in false or illusory recognition of episodes that never occurred. We present data from cognitive, neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies that illuminate aspects of misattribution and false recognition. We first discuss cognitive research examining possible mechanisms of misattribution associated with false recognition. We also consider ways in which false recognition can be reduced or avoided, focusing in particular on the role of distinctive information. We next turn to neuropsychological research concerning patients with amnesia and Alzheimer's disease that reveals conditions under which such patients are less susceptible to false recognition than are healthy controls, thus providing clues about the brain mechanisms that drive false recognition. We then consider neuroimaging studies concerned with the neural correlates of true and false recognition, examining when the two forms of recognition can and cannot be distinguished on the basis of brain activity. Finally, we argue that even though misattribution and other memory sins are annoying and even dangerous, they can also be viewed as by–products of adaptive features of memory.