Elizabeth Loftus, psychologist and distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine, discusses the prevalence of false memories.
She describes her own experiments in creating false memories, and explains how this impacts fields ranging from law to dieting.
Elizabeth Loftus, Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Irvine, studies human memory. Her experiments reveal how memories can be changed by things that we are told.
Facts, ideas, suggestions and other post-event information can modify our memories. The legal field, so reliant on memories, has been a significant application of the memory research. She is also interested in psychology and law, more generally.
Power or process of recalling or reproducing what has been learned or experienced. Research indicates that the ability to retain information is fairly uniform among normal individuals; what differs is the degree to which persons learn or take account of something to begin with and the kind and amount of detail that is retained. Attention, motivation, and especially association facilitate this process. Visual images are generally better remembered than are other forms of sense-data. Memory prodigies, or people with photographic or eidetic memories, often draw heavily on visual associations, including mnemonics. Many psychologists distinguish between short- and long-term memory. The former (variously said to last 10 seconds to 3 minutes) is less subject to interference and distortion than the latter. Long-term memory is sometimes divided into episodic (i.e., event-centred) and semantic (i.e., knowledge-centred) memory. Various models of memory have been proposed, from the Enlightenment notion of impressions made on brain tissues (restyled as memory molecules or coded engrams in the 20th century) to B.F. Skinner's black box to more recent ideas concerning information processing or the formation of neuronal groups. Disorders of or involving memory include Alzheimer disease, amnesia, Korsakoff syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and senile dementia. See alsohypnosis.
You make a good point. Loftus does a good job of discussing her research in a way that's easily understood. However, it's one thing to get an audience to understand what you're saying. It's another thing to conduct research according to the scientific method, and present a conclusion that accurately represents your findings. Which is why I've presented the following exercises to students.
1. Compare the findings on p. 320 in Loftus and Burns (1982) to the abstract on p. 318. Is the abstract an accurate representation?
2. In the mall study ("The Formation of False Memories, Loftus and Pickrell ) find the controls for demand characteristics and response bias. Students will discover that there aren't any.
3. What discrepancy did the media report in October 2006 that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald found in Loftus's research (Schmechel et al., 2006)when he cross-examined her? (Contrary to the abstract, the findings showed that potential jurors could use common sense to correctly ascertain the effects of memory on eyewitness testimony.)
I think that this is a really cool subject! i think Loftus does a really good job presenting the information from her research in an easily understood way. Also, from the brief bio that i have heard about her, she has had a first hand encounter with repressed vs false memories as related to sexual encounters. Given this information i do not believe that she is discrediting that repressed memories exist just simply that memory is easily manipulated and this fact should be kept in mind.
Her real "discoveries" are trivial - historians, forensic experts etc. know that no two witness testimonies are the same, unless they've been agreed upon in advance. The human mind tries to make sense of incomplete, possibly conflicting information from any and every source available, adding and subtracting and interpreting to create patterns that are easier to integrate into individual perception of reality; it follows that this process can be manipulated, internally or externally. So it's possible to screw around with memory, mind view, opinion and overall perception of reality - all of which are closely interconnected by a system that's built to Make Sense of It All. As such, it wouldn't SEEM unlikely that some therapists, for whatever reason, have indeed implanted memories into their patients using questionable techniques. That remains to be established.
Like a scientist, she conducted studies to document this using study models that are ethically admissible... no problem there, most scientific studies are artificial, and appear trivial and unspectacular (and downright tediously boring if you have to read them), but they are necessary to address a certain theory for the record, especially in medicine. So there are huge numbers of studies on any one research topic, conflicting studies, meta-studies (studies of studies) and waffly discussion sections that are usually the longest part of any one study. That's the important part - not a supposed breakthrough study to make it into Time Magazine, but peer review, corroboration and qualification leading to a consensus amongst professionals in that field (which may or may not match next year's or next decade's consensus). In this respect, Loftus hasn't even started on establishing anything like a breakthrough in scientific understanding yet, but to be fair, science itself is not an exact science, it's subject to all the human failings - group think, laziness, narcissism, misplaced loyalties, personal hobby horses, financial interests, fads and trends, and whatever - that apply to other professions - in most topics, there is enough pluralism to ensure as roughly accurate of a picture as resources allow, especially in relatively uncontroversial issues such as whether ACE inhibitors really help type II diabetics, or SSRI withdrawal really increases suicide rates.
BUT: Loftus has too vested of an interest in her findings being established - the FMSF, defense attorneys with a lot of funds for clients with a lot at stake, etc. Claiming that testimony could be a figment of someone's imagination as a scientifically verifiable phenomenon to stand up before court, that's a goldmine for defense attorneys, giving her a source of income that's hard to turn down, especially given the lack of interest by her peers - googling "false memory syndrome" turns up her name or those of her immediate associates over and again, nobody else seems to want to know. To claim that this would not contaminate what should (ideally) be an unbiased scientific approach would be unrealistic.
BUT: The same criticism applies to the opposing side - therapists that are also on some kind of personal mission, or simply therapists specializing in dealing with sexual trauma - in other words, therapists with their own vested interest.
SO: The whole subject is too loaded with vested interests and emotional baggage for an objective debate. IOW, it already had all the makings of the holy war it has become.
Thanks for your thoughtful responses, L. Riki! I've been out of the country for 2 weeks. Sadly, not in Venice though. :-)
As for Loftus' apparently flawed work being used to support the false memory defense for accused child molesters, that's fine with me. As long as the prosecution has evaluated her research, read beyond the abstract, compared the data to the conclusion. What disappoints me is that the reporters who interview her apparently haven't done their homework, haven't fact-checked even a few of her statements beforehand. As a result, for years the public now seems to believe that recalling childhood trauma can be compared to conning one's younger sibling into believing something.
As for the discussion questions. Those are meant to generate critical thinking on the part of Loftus' audiences. The answers won't be graded!:-) But I'd like to see how you answer the questions. The 2-3,000 people Loftus presents to this year are parents, grandparents and potential jury members. Do we want them thinking that sex abuse allegations are all just false memories implanted by therapists?
I think tomorrow I will participate in your class by answering your questions; if only for myself. I am interested if you will post the answers; at which time, I might have something to say. ...I have not mastered the art of charm on a posting board yet, therefore you receive the smile, in friendliness.
Hello there. I had a wonderful time in Venice and at the lakes; equally happy to be home again—all have its charm, I suppose.
Your writing style is unique—much like a signature. You have made a remarkable journey; the outcome nearly stellar. I am intrigued with you as a person; your convictions are admirable—and your arguments well documented.
Regarding the cases in Croatia: I am fairly well informed about the Balkan atrocities, including the crime of rape, as a weapon of war—indeed, it is dire; I have held in my arms children born unto several raped women; the child, generally the product of one from multiple rapes. I have seen the confusion; the debate one has in an attempt to reconcile the unimaginable, as the woman attempts to both care for the child and loath it.
I was there, near the end of each of these wars—therefore; I was not certain of what I felt regarding Loftus’ work being used in the defense, of Furundrija—I have contemplated this and found that I am not conflicted. We are a fair distance from flawlessness when it comes to testifying on the accuracy of memory; and an astute attorney would find ample evidence to refute, quite frankly, any testimony.
However, I will concede that raw data in the field of psychology may be uniquely harnessed to propagate the investigators’ general vision; having said that, in all fairness, I would consider anything not ‘a hard science’, “pseudo-science”—this to include theoretical papers, more or less—psychology more so. Does this pertain to only Loftus papers—certainly not.
Your arguments are well thought out; as I am sure you are aware. However, you must equally realize that it is extremely difficult to refute or challenge your perspective, based on humanitarian purposes, yes? I have nothing damaging to say although I might ask about your biasness and whether or not you feel it enters the equation at all. I find myself careful in what I say to you now and while you have not proffered I do so, I nevertheless have chosen to do so. It is the subject matter and my empathy which quite naturally encourages me to head toward a protecting mode—all the while you have argued points and I have chosen not to. I am certain you run up against this on occasion.
So, let me say this— I am lucky to live in a world where the likes of Loftus exists and publishes and in a world where those exist that publish to the contrary—including advocates and individuals like you. We are in our infancy in the areas of the mind and soul; and, quite honestly, I indeed require the shoulders of giants to stand upon.
I am not conflicted by Loftus’ work being used in the attempt to establish flawed or introduced memory. Simplistically stated, as I see it…
Memory: One only need look for the keys next time to realize there is such a glitch in memory which has us wandering through the house, in search. Attempt at a false memory: Ask someone in the house if she witnessed what you did with the keys— and she wrongly tells you that you had the keys after you came home and at the time you answered the phone. Outcome: I can assume that many of us would choose to look by the phone, although we are virtually certain we did not use it— our rationale stemming from our recognition of an inherent fallibility—our memories are flawed, and this would occur without a crisis inserted.
I can only speak for myself; and I can only offer, at this time, a conversation. I have quite a bit rattling around my head...this is an interesting topic.