50pct of people remember things that never happened

(Getty / file)
(Getty / file)

Have you ever told a story from memory, only to get weird looks from your friends and family and for it to turn out it never actually happened?

Whether it's about that time your dad ran over a cat - was it white or black? - or when you got stung by a wasp while camping, new research shows around 50 percent of people suffer from 'false memories'.

A false memory is when you recall an event which never took place, particularly during childhood.

Massey University's Dr Heather Hendrickson, who was not part of the research, told Paul Henry on Monday the study has important implications for situations where we rely on people's memories, such as witness testimonies.

"I think the way that those kinds of [questionings] are done is incredibly important and people need to be very aware that there's a huge amount of susceptibility to suggestion in the human population," she says.

The new research was a 'mega study' by the University of Warwick in the UK examining data from eight different studies, and was published in the journal Memory on Wednesday.

Study participants were told they were taking part in a study about childhood memories and researchers 'suggested' memories to them - one of which was known to be false, others which were true.

"Over the course of a week they'd do a couple of different interviews... and what they found was for the false memories which had never taken place, 30 percent of people were actually able to come up with vivid details that had actually never happened," Dr Hendrickson says.

"Fifty percent of all of the people who went through this - a sample size of 400 - either came up with false memories and elaborated on them, or at least accepted that it had happened and believed it had happened."

Only 10 percent of people were able to recognise a false memory and deny it happened, while 40 percent just said they didn't remember the event happening.

"How plausible a suggestion is really makes a difference in how susceptible the person might be to accepting that as one of their memories," Dr Hendrickson says.

Study co-author Dr Kimberly Wade says a number of factors can prompt people false memories, such as repeatedly asking someone to imagine a fake event and 'jogging' their memories with photos.

"The finding that a large portion of people are prone to developing false beliefs is important," she says.

"We know from other research that distorted beliefs can influence people's behaviours, intentions and attitudes."