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Could you be convinced you committed a crime that you didn't commit?
A groundbreaking study suggests you probably could.
It's not often that a study comes along that makes me want to drop everything and read it from cover to cover, right there and then. It's also not often that a paper is terminated early, out of fear of inflicting harm on participants — one memorable past example is Zimbardo's infamous Stanford prison experiment. Take note of that; we'll come back to that later.
Researchers convinced 70 percent of participants that they had committed a serious crime — theft, assault, or assault with a weapon — when, in reality, they had done no such thing. In this post we'll examine how the researchers managed to reach this astounding result and what the finding means.
The experiment involved 91 participants, 70 of whom were eligible to participate based on interviews with the participants' parents or caregivers. The researchers contacted the caregivers and asked if the participants had at least one highly emotional life event between the ages of 11 and 14. The participants also must never have experienced any criminal events that fitted with the researcher's predetermined scenarios and the participants had to never have come into contact with the police. If these conditions were met, the participants could continue to the next stages, which involved three interviews, each a week apart.
Before the first interview, participants were randomly assigned to either the criminal condition or the non-criminal condition. The participants in the criminal condition were told that their parents or caregivers had told the researchers they committed a crime that involved police contact; a third of these were told they had committed assault; another third that they had committed assault with a weapon; and the remainder that they had committed theft.
In the non-criminal condition, participants were told they had experienced an emotional event: of these a third were told they had a powerful emotional experience in which they injured themselves; another third that they had been attacked by a dog; and the remainder that they had lost a large sum of money and got into trouble with their parents. The participants and their parents were forbidden from discussing the events.
Thirty of the participants were assigned to each condition and 10 of those to each event. The researchers then began three interviews using techniques believed to elicit false confessions, which we'll look at in a minute. In the first interview, the researchers asked the participants to begin by describing each event in turn, beginning with the true event that participants' caregivers had told the experimenters and following this by describing the events that had not really happened.
As we would expect, in the first interview the participants recalled the event that really happened and didn't recall the events the researchers made up. In the second and third interviews however, this all changed. Participants were asked how much they recalled from their own perspective and if they could "see themselves in their memory," by the end of the study an astounding proportion not only believed they had done the things the researchers described, but also believed they could remember and visualize doing them:
In the graph above, we can see that 44 participants falsely remembered more than 10 details and believed the event had really happened at the debriefing. Six falsely remembered more than 10 details, but did not actually believe the event happened at the time of the debriefing. Six falsely remembered fewer than 10 details, but were convinced the event happened at the debriefing. Last but by no means least, a staggering four participants alone reported no false memories.
The conditions the researchers required in order to deem participants as being implanted with a false memory were not trivial. In order to be classed as having remembered the false memory, the participants had to give a response to the instruction: “Tell me everything you remember from start to finish," containing at least 10 details. They also had to provide the answers suggested by the experimenter to the questions: “Where exactly did the event occur?" and, “Who was present during the event?"
The researchers falsely told the participants that the reason for the experiment was to investigate memory-retrieval methods and also falsely told the participants that most people remember these kinds of memories if they try hard enough. Importantly, they told the participants to try and visualize the event each night at home. In the interviews, the researchers used seemingly incontrovertible evidence by saying for example, "Your parents said ..." They also applied pressure saying for example, "Most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough." When the experimenters were probing, they used the tactic of suggesting they had knowledge, for example by saying, "This sounds like what your parents described," but following that with something like, "I can't give you more details because they have to come from you." The researchers also appeared disappointed when the participants could not recall a false memory and said the line: “That's OK. Many people can't recall certain events at first because they haven't thought about them for such a long time," while scribbling a note down on a clipboard. Between sessions, participants were asked to go home and practice visualizing the false event to try and recover the memory.
If you were reading closely, you might have been concerned about the fact that the researchers ended their study early, before the final 10 participants could be interviewed. For researchers to admit doing this is extremely rare, as terminating a promising study early can be a form of "p-hacking," a way to stack the odds in favor of a desired result, as Ed Yong pointed out on Twitter. The resulting discussion is very interesting (if you're a bit of a stats nerd) and the consensus seems to be that the results in this study are indeed so strong, that this is not a case of p-hacking. Even if the study were continued and led to no more cases of false memories, the result would still be staggering. All the same, it is a great shame the study wasn't allowed to run to completion given its groundbreaking nature. It'll be interesting to see if the finding can be replicated by other groups.
What are the implications of this study? There is a long and fascinating history of research into false memories, but this study was the first to induce false memories involving crimes and involving powerful false memories from when the participants would have been in their teens — much older than in most previous studies, which tended to involve memories formed in early childhood. Earlier research has demonstrated the successful implanting of false memories ranging from being lost in a mall as a child to having tea with Prince Charles — interesting findings, but not quite on the same scale as committing assault with a weapon as a teenager. Furthermore in previous studies, the numbers of participants who were successfully implanted with false memories were much lower. The new research suggests that the risk of forming shocking false memories, such as the memory in the Brian Williams case, may be greater than previously thought.
The fact that the researchers were able to create false memories of serious crimes will likely make the study relevant in criminal trials involving alleged false memories. In the US, 30 percent of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence resulted from false confessions, admissions, statements to law enforcement, or guilty pleas, according to the Innocence Project. Many of these have been blamed on the controversial Reid technique of interrogation, that remains widely used by many police forces in the U.S. and around the world. For the results to be truly applicable to criminal cases however, we'd ideally need to see a version of the study that was closer to what might happen in a real police interview room. How such a study could be done ethically is another question.
Something that the researchers didn't point out directly is that these findings are perhaps even more relevant in another area, the controversial practice of recovered memory therapy (which we looked at in detail on this blog recently). This is a practice that has long been disowned by most reputable psychologists and psychiatrists due to the very high risk of creating false memories, but it still goes on today. The techniques used in the study were actually in many ways milder than techniques that have been used by recovered memory therapists to uncover supposedly repressed memories. That is certainly something worth thinking about.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.