You might have spent the festive period with family reminiscing on funny tales from the past.

But if you clashed over how events really unfolded, you may have experienced false memory.

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We found out everything you need to know about why our memories can become scrambled to the point where we're convinced that something that never happened actually took place.

What is false memory?

A false memory can just be something you recall with distorted details, or it could be an entirely fabricated memory.

This can be as simple as remembering you didn’t lock the front door on your way out in the morning, when in fact you did, or thinking you last saw your phone in the kitchen when you really left it in your bedroom.

You may think of your memory as being like a video recorder, but in fact it is not always that accurate. While we can all suffer sometimes from memory failure, false memories differ in that, to us, they represent something that did happen.

This has come to attention in pop culture in recent years as people have exchanged vivid memories on Twitter and Reddit about a 1990s film called Shazaam starring American actor Sinbad as a genie. No such film exists.

There is, however, a 1996 film called Kazaam, starring former basketball player Shaquille O’Neal as a genie and false memory could be to blame.

A recent study by home security retailer Safe.co.uk found that by posting only positive personal news and photos on social media, people go on to construct happy - and false - memories of what the photo represents. 

The study also found that 49% of Brits believe they may have created false happier memories of childhood by looking at photos through social media’s rose-tinted lens, and that a quarter had memories of childhood that they suspect might not be true at all.

On a more serious note, false memories have also been found by researchers to be a leading cause of false convictions, usually with the victim incorrectly remembering what a perpetrator looked like or false memories that appear during police interrogation.

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What causes false memory?

False memory is caused by a number of factors, but existing knowledge and other memories are believes to interfere with the forming of new memories through suggestion.

These memories can often become stronger and more vivid as time goes on, making them likely to become distorted.

Sometimes original memories can be changed when factoring in new information and experiences.

People are susceptible to suggestion which can often result in us having memories of things that might not have really happened to us – for example, a friend could tell a story of something that happened to them so vividly that over time you may incorrectly recall that you were a witness when you weren’t really there.

One study found that if you are interviewed immediately after an event, details remain vivid and so you are less likely to be influenced by misinformation.

What can you do to prevent it?

Once a false memory has formed it can be difficult to unpick what did and didn’t unfold, however objects, sounds and smells have been found to trigger more accurate recall and Safe.co.uk’s study found that four in five people find these cues and keepsakes helpful.

If you want to preserve your memory for the future, try traditional hobbies like making scrapbooks, creating memory boxes and keeping a diary.

Have you ever experienced false memory? Let us know in the Comments section below.