The XX Factor

Are Ariel Castro’s Neighbors Inadvertently Creating False Memories?

A general view of the Castro house from the outside

Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

As more details emerge from the bizarre kidnapping case in Cleveland, people are beginning to wonder how Ariel Castro could have kept women locked up in his house for a decade without anyone actually noticing that something strange was going on. Enter the neighbors, some of whom are telling the press that they did, in fact, see all sorts of weird behavior—and that they called the police, who did nothing about it. The police, however, are denying these reports, saying that the two visits made to the house in the decade were unrelated to any suspicious activities. Considering Castro’s frightening history of domestic violence and child abuse, it’s hard to imagine the police would just ignore it if the neighbors kept complaining about him doing things like dragging naked women around on leashes in his yard.

So what’s going on? Are all these people lying? Are the cops? Or is this a case of lost records or unrecorded police calls? One possible explanation is that the neighbors are simply caught up in the excitement over a national story unfolding in their backyard, and they’re misremembering their pasts because of it. False memories, particularly regarding incredibly emotional situations, are easier to develop than many realize. 

Researcher Elizabeth Loftus is probably the world’s foremost expert on false memories. She spoke with Psychology Today in 2012 about doing hundreds of studies that showed people could misremember the details of their own experiences. They could even conjure up entirely false memories after being prompted to do so:

“Despite the ethical limitations imposed on laboratory studies of artificially created memories, research showed that creating false memories of a relatively benign childhood experience, i.e., becoming lost in a shopping mall as a young child, was easily induced. In other studies, even much more extreme examples of false memories (e.g. spilling punch on the bride’s parents at a family wedding or nearly drowning as a child) could be induced in as many as a quarter of the subjects tested. Even in subjects who failed to develop a complete false memory, partial recall could be induced in nearly half of all research subjects.”

Here at Slate, William Saletan conducted research to see if people could be convinced they remember political events that didn’t happen. He found that up to 42 percent of the subjects could be persuaded to “remember” a faked newsworthy incident. Recently, Jimmy Kimmel even used this tendency of people to remember what they’re “supposed” to for a comic bit.

Some of these people are lying, but some of them probably do think they’ve heard of these bands, especially those who are willing to offer up details. As uncomfortable as it is to accept, our brains may truly be this suggestible.

My guess is that Castro’s neighbors probably saw some weird stuff, but did what most of us tend to do in these circumstances, which is ignore it and figure it’s somebody else’s problem. Now, I’d wager they’re recalling those memories, but they’re unintentionally distorting them to make them more dramatic. Or they are misremembering because they wish to feel more proactive than they really were.

Read more in Slate about the Cleveland kidnapping case.