How did you become interested in psychology?
I started out as an undergraduate at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), majoring in mathematics. I actually loved mathematics in high school, especially algebra and geometry. I didn’t feel quite so warm and fuzzy about taking calculus, though, but I still loved parts of mathematics, so I planned to stick with it. I needed elective courses, so I took an introduction to psychology course from Allen Parducci at UCLA and absolutely loved it. I began to take all my electives in psychology. I actually finished my undergraduate studies with degrees in both mathematics and psychology. I then decided to go on to graduate school in psychology and chose Stanford University because of their mathematical psychology program, which sounded perfect for me. However, I soon discovered that I wasn’t as interested in mathematical psychology as I thought I would be and developed an interest in the study of memory.
Do you have tips for students planning to attend graduate school?
Students need to be working with professors. Many people will go to graduate school and be set on one area of research. But if no one is interested in that topic at your school, then you won’t get as much attention and training from your professors. Because of this, try to work on a project that really interests a faculty member at your school. Look for another school where a professor is working on the topic and go there to work with that professor. Students should try to be more open to topics of interest to faculty members, so they can marry some ideas between their interests and those of their professors. Many faculty members are going to give students more time if they’re interested in the same issues.
What advice would you give students who are interested in becoming a therapist? How can they be ethically responsible?
There are many clinical psychology programs at universities around the country, where students can get good training to be a therapist. Try to be aware that there was a major controversy that was raging in the ‘90s and 2000s about repressed memories. It is worth learning about that controversy so that mistakes aren’t repeated.
How did you become interested in the study of memory?
I was first drawn to doing semantic memory studies with my former professor Jonathan Freedman while I was in graduate school and continued to publish on this after graduate school. After a few years of studying semantic memory, I decided I really wanted to do work that had more obvious social relevance and practical application. I had a bit of expertise with memory, and I hit upon the idea of studying witnesses, crimes, and other legally relevant ideas. Eyewitness testimony work ended up as my focus and still is today.
What are common misconceptions of memory?
There are surveys that reveal many misconceptions people have in terms of memory. Many people believe that traumatic memories are registered in the brain like a video recorder, but scientists don’t think so. There is also a belief by the general public that the correlation between confidence and accuracy is very strong, which is not necessarily true. Many people think that massive oppression of horrific experiences is routine, when there is no credible scientific evidence of this. These are a few misconceptions of the workings of memory that segments of the population harbor, and that’s why we are on the lookout for ways to make decisions on accurate workings of memories.
Who is most susceptible to manufactured memories?
Some recent work with Chinese collaborators has shown that people who score high on standard tests of intelligence are more resistant to memories being tampered with. People with self-reported lapses in memory are more susceptible to memory contamination, meaning people who frequently can’t remember if they did something today or just thought about doing that thing.
What procedures have you used to plant memories?
Some other researchers have used memories that could have been horrific like being attacked by a vicious animal or nearly drowning and having to be rescued by a lifeguard. I believe it seems obvious if these experiences had happened that they would have been traumatic. In my research, we’re not planting innocuous memories.
The first procedure that we developed was the lost-in-the-mall procedure. This method we used to get participants to believe they were lost in a shopping mall as a child, frightened, and rescued by an elderly person. We talked to family members of the adult subjects and then told the adult subjects that we had learned something that happened to them as a child. We presented three true experiences from their actual lives and made up a fourth experience about being lost in a mall and rescued. We would question these people on several occasions, and a quarter of the subjects fell for the made-up experience. This method presents a fairly strong form of suggestion.
We can also get people to develop false methods through guided imagination and false feedback. We gather a lot of data from subjects about their personality, thoughts about food, etc. We then tell them we have a computerized personal profile generated by our computer that determined that certain things happened to them as a child based on the information they provided. We show them a list of completely made-up things that the computer says happened to them as children like getting sick from eating a hard-boiled egg. These made-up experiences, however, were embedded in a list of general experiences that are true for most kids. We tell them to think about this (made-up) experience or imagine how it might have happened if they can’t remember. Because they did this questionnaire, the feedback they are given would seem credible to them. These false feedback procedures can make people believe they had experiences that they did not have. Of course, we debrief our subjects at the end of the experiment, which proper experimentation typically requires.
What contributions has your research made in the legal world?
In terms of the legal world, many terrific psychological scientists are working on problems of eyewitness testimony, or when people are witness to a crime and have to go to court. There are hundreds or even thousands of cases of wrongful convictions, and the major cause is faulty eyewitness testimony. We use science, in conjunction with new developments in DNA, to show actual innocence of those previously convicted to put the spotlight on this problem. What these studies have led to is suggestions of how law enforcement should handle every phase of a conviction or arrest. A document for eyewitnesses has been devised by law enforcement to handle questioning, showing a line-up, and every other phase of the process. That’s one very tangible contribution my research has made to the psychological science. In another domain, the research others and I have done also put a spotlight on sets of beliefs that are harming people rather than helping them. One example is in the area of so-called "repressed memories.”
What will we see from you in the future?
With some of my graduate students, we will be publishing research on whether it’s harder or easier to plant positive or negative memories. We will also be researching memory distortion and the difference between a personal false memory of something that happened to you versus when you perpetrated in the memory. We are also studying individual differences of who is more likely to be susceptible to memory tampering. There is so much more to learn, which is a good thing since it keeps curious psychologists busy.
I am very excited about finding ways to do false memory studies online. We can collect data so much more easily and get very promising results of false memories being produced in the mind of a subject who doesn’t even have to come to our lab. We are converting our procedures to online running and analysis.