Car Crash Experiment

The Fluidity of Human Memory

The 1974 Loftus and Palmer study, known as the Car Crash Experiment, is a foundational piece of research in cognitive psychology that demonstrates the fluidity of human memory. It provided evidence that memories can be influenced and reshaped by new information—a phenomenon now known as the misinformation effect.

In their study, Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer presented 45 participants with footage of a car accident and then questioned them using different verbs to describe the collision. The question, “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” was modified by replacing “hit” with verbs like “smashed,” “collided,” “bumped,” or “contacted.”

The Car Crash Experiment

The Car Crash Experiment

The results were striking: the choice of verb significantly affected participants’ speed estimates. Those who received the word “smashed” reported higher speeds, illustrating the profound influence of phrasing on memory recall.

Estimated speed for verb used

Estimated speed for verb used

In a follow-up study to test if memory could be actually changed, Loftus and Palmer divided 150 new participants into groups after showing the same car accident footage. One group was asked about the cars’ speed using “hit,” another with “smashed,” and a control group was not questioned. A week later, those who had heard “smashed” were more likely to falsely remember seeing broken glass,  thus confirming that memory is not only flexible but can be altered.

Distribution of “yes” and “no” responses to the question, “Did you see any broken glass?’

Distribution of “yes” and “no” responses to the question, “Did you see any broken glass?’

These findings carry substantial weight, especially in legal settings where the phrasing of questions can affect eyewitness accounts and juror opinions. That’s why the legal system meticulously ensures neutral language when questioning witnesses.

The study’s implications extend beyond the courtroom. The media, for instance, can shape collective memory through its portrayal of events. Describing a political rally as “an enthusiastic assembly” versus “a chaotic protest” can significantly alter public perception and memory.

In everyday interactions, such as family conversations, the framing of questions about a child’s day can influence their recollection. Asking, “Did you have fun playing with your new friend?” may lead to positive memories, while “Were you upset by something your new friend did?” might prompt negative ones.

Moreover, as people discuss past events, their memories can merge. One person’s account of a story might influence another’s memory, leading them to recall details they didn’t actually observe or experience firsthand.

This experiment by Loftus and Palmer is not just a cornerstone of cognitive psychology; it serves as a critical reminder of the impact that language and narratives can have on our memories and perceptions. In today’s world, where information is everywhere, understanding the potential for our memories to be shaped by the words and stories we encounter is more crucial than ever.

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.” ―Sylvia Plath

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” ―Ernest Hemingway

“Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.” ―Oscar Wilde

“I would always rather be happy than dignified.” ―Charlotte Brontë

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