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Why your partner thinks you said things you know you didn’t say

Posted Apr 10 2013 5:00am

False Memories – What we remember about things others say can depend on our mood

People eating and memory

Two men go out to dinner with their dates. Let’s call them Bob and Sam. Bob goes home sure that his date did not like him. Sam is sure his date did. The two women said exactly the same things to their dates. Why the difference?

This happens a lot. You swear you didn’t say something your partner swears you did. Neither of you may be lying but one of you has got this conversation wrong. Why?

One cause of memory failures is false memories. They happen more often than most of us realize and they cause a lot of relationship problems. Those memories are easier to create than you might think.

Researchers have sophisticated ways of testing for false memories and the way they are created or perpetuated. In pasts post we talked about how drugs and alcohol can increase false memories but your personality and that of your partner are also factors. False memories are dependent on your mood at the time you hear things. They are also affected by your normal personality and way of perceiving the world.

First some info about false memories and then why they occur in every day relationships.

A test for false memories would consist of asking you to remember a list of words. Say the list included, night, bed, pillow, nap, etc. The next time you see the researcher you read a list of words and are asked to mark which you saw the first time.

This time included in the list is a word that was not there the first time but would have fit with the category that made up that list. In this case the missing word might have been sleep. So if you picked sleep it made sense but in fact the word was not there the first time. If you said that you remembered it this would be a false memory.

In our date example we find that in both cases the woman told their date that they had an interesting tie. Bob the perennial pessimist is sure his date said he had an awful tie. Sam remembers his date as saying he had a nice tie. Sam is an optimist.

The mood as well as the basic personality of these two men causes them to hear the same information but they both remember things that the date did not say. What they are remembering is a form of false memory in which their mind has filled in the words needed to make sense of the comment “interesting tie.”

One way to check this out in the lab would be to leave the word “sleep” out of the retest. This time if we added two words to the list, say insomnia and restful, we could see if there was a difference in the way two people would remember that list.

Sure enough pessimists will remember insomnia and swear it was on the first list and optimists will remember the word rest. Both are making errors in their memory. Neither is lying but they both are sure they remember things that did not happen because they learned the list of words as a category not as a list. Then when they are retested they fill in another word that fits their version of what the category is about.

So consider that some of the things you and those around you swear were said or happen may in fact be false memories. How sure are you that you actually heard the things you think you heard?

Sometimes for the sake of relationships and our long-term sanity it pays to check out with the other person what they really said or meant. That way our minds do not need to fill in missing information and there are fewer chances to create these troublesome false memories in the first place.

What is the chance that memory you are arguing about is a false memory?

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page . For information about my other writing work beyond this blog there is also a Facebook authors page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at

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