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Classic experiments explained

The Misinformation Effect

In short

The misinformation effect was famously studied by E. F. Loftus and J. C. Palmer (1974) in their well-known Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction experiment. Their aim was to investigate how language, in the form of leading questions, used in eyewitness testimony can alter memory.

The Misinformation Effect

In the classic study, following clips of a car crash, participants were asked to estimate the speed of cars, where the critical verb of the question varied. For example, some participants were asked how fast the cars were travelling when they 'hit' one another, others were asked to estimate the speed when they 'crashed'.

A screenshot of the spreadsheet in Gorilla. There are three columns containing the question 'If the speed limit for this road is 50mph, how fast was the car travelling when it X into the other car?' X is replaced in each of the columns by the verbs bumped, crashed, hit.

The participants' estimation of the event was influenced by the critical verb they received. Verbs such as 'crashed' resulted in a higher estimated speed than 'hit', for example, as they imply information about the speed during the event and subsequently alter eyewitnesses' memory. The leading question created an unconscious bias during the eyewitnesses' recall of the event.

What is the misinformation effect?

Misinformation refers to the fact that language in post-event questions can influence eyewitness' recall of episodic memories, since they may be distorted by cues in questioning. Misinformation effects are evident in cases where people confuse a verbal description of an event with previous visual experience. Reports of memory may also contain the intrusion of non-existent elements. The effect of misinformation depends on the wording of post-event questions, and the strength of the eyewitness' memory.

What is the theory behind the misinformation effect?

One theory, the response bias explanation, suggests that the wording of the post-event question has no real effect on the memories of the eyewitness -- the language just influences how they choose to answer. The substitution theory suggests that the language of the critical question may actually alter the eyewitnesses' memory of the event.

Can I study the misinformation effect in online research?

Yes, absolutely! In fact, other researchers have already studied the misinformation effect in bilingual populations (Dolgoarshinnaia & Martín-Luengo, 2021).

How does it work in Gorilla?

You can try out and clone our sample of a task which explores the misinformation effect. Of course, you can also tweak this sample to use your own stimuli and change the questions, for example.

Have a look: Try a Misinformation Effect task in Gorilla

Are there any papers Gorilla users have written about the misinformation effect?

Yes, there are! Have a look at the following article:

False memories in native and foreign languages


Dolgoarshinnaia, A., & Martin-Luengo, B. (2021). False memories in native and foreign languages. Frontiers in Psychology, 13(5), 585-589.

Loftus, E. F., & Palmer, J. C. (1974). Reconstruction of automobile destruction: An example of the interaction between language and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13(5), 585-589.

This page was written in collaboration with Lizzie Drury