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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2017
Creating (False) Memories
With Elizabeth Loftus, PhD
Ashley Garcia, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga 
View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Think of a time where you remember a scenario differently from someone else. For example, maybe you think a car accident was a red car’s fault because it ran through a stop sign. But your friend who was with you remembers seeing the car run through a yield sign. Who is right and what really happened?
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, who is a professor at the University of California at Irvine, studies this concept, called false memory. “A false memory is when you believe that you saw something or did something that you didn’t see or do,” Dr. Loftus describes. She has been studying this since the 1970s, and throughout her career, she has testified in close to 300 civil and criminal trials that dealt with memory. Though she has worked on many cases involving ordinary people, she has also consulted or been an expert witness in famous cases such as the trial of the officers accused in the Rodney King beating, the Menendez brothers, and trials involving Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson.
How Are False Memories Created?
In a laboratory setting, Dr. Loftus says, she and her researchers do two things to create false memories. Sometimes they show participants events such as simulated accidents or a crime. Then they will deliberately try to distort the participants’ memories of a specific detail such as making them believe a car drove through a yield sign rather than a stop sign. “We do this through what we call leading questions or by exposing them to another person’s mistaken version of what happened.”
In other laboratory settings, Dr. Loftus and her researchers have made people believe scenarios that never even happened. For example, they have made participants falsely believe that they had certain experiences as children, teenagers, and even the week before the study was conducted.
In a study that Dr. Loftus conducted in the 90s, she and her colleagues planted a false memory that, when the participants were small children, maybe five or six years old, they got lost in a shopping mall. Part of the false memory includes making the participants believe that they were scared, crying, and then eventually rescued by an older adult and reunited with their family. But how was this possible?
“We accomplished that by telling our participants that we had talked to a relative of theirs, like their mother for example,” Dr. Loftus discusses. “We actually had talked to the mother, who gave us some true experiences that we reminded the participant of.” After this, the participants were suggestively interviewed three different times. At the end of the study, which lasted just a few weeks, 25% of the sample remembered all or part of the completely made-up experience.
Dr. Loftus and her graduate students have also been conducting studies on memory blindness. This is where they convince participants that their answers were different than the ones they had actually given. They have found that participants often fail to detect when the researchers tell them something different than what the participant originally said. Instead, participants often adopt the new information as their own memory.
How Can This Affect People?
False memories can influence a person’s thoughts, intentions, and even behaviors. In a more recent study, Dr. Loftus wanted to see what happens to people after you plant a false memory in their minds. She made the participants believe they got sick as a child after eating a particular food such as pickles, eggs, or strawberry ice cream.
Research showed that, after the participants had a memory of getting sick from a certain food, they were less interested in that same food today. Other studies conducted by Dr. Loftus and other researchers have proven that, even if these foods are put in front of the participants after implementing the false memory, they will eat less of it.
“This is the concept of mind technology,” Dr. Loftus acknowledges, because researchers are able to plant false memories and by doing so, influence participants’ thoughts and behaviors. “This shows us that you can, through the idea of false memory, influence people’s nutritional selections. If this technique is developed for use in the real world, we can make a dent in the obesity problem in our society,” she remarks.
Similar to Dr. Loftus’s food studies, people who had a false memory of getting sick drinking vodka were less interested in drinking vodka again. She says that implanting a memory could be a benefit to people because it could enable them to lead healthier lives.
The Importance of Studying False Memory
Memory is one of the key activities humans engage in and one of the most important, Dr. Loftus asserts. Studying this topic allows her to understand how memories can work and how they can fail, especially in a legal setting. “There are cases that result in injustice, and people are wrongfully convicted,” she elaborates. “Faulty memory is probably a major cause of wrongful convictions, so if we understand it a little better and figure out a way to minimize the memory problems, we can bring a little more justice to society.”
One of the main challenges with memory is that, without corroboration, it is almost impossible to tell if a memory is false or if it is true. “I have been on a number of cases where people were led through psychotherapy to believe that they had repressed memories of someone in their family hurting them over long periods of time,” Dr. Loftus states. These newly created memories may be either geographically or psychologically impossible, but people still believe that they are true, which can result in long-term consequences. People split off from their families, and lots of harm is caused in the process to themselves as well as the family as a whole.
Dr. Loftus says that once researchers know more about how mind technology can influence behavior, it can continue to be perfected and developed to help people. However, as the opportunities grow for it to become more widely used, “society is going to have to think about ethical issues such as whether we should regulate this technology, if we ever affirmatively use these techniques, or if we should ban their use,” she says. Those are societal questions that need to be addressed now that she and her colleagues have demonstrated the power of these techniques.
Studying Eye-Witness Testimony
Dr. Loftus first became involved in studying false memory in the 1970s after doing theoretical studies of memory in graduate school. Once she finished and received her PhD, she discovered that she wanted to do something with a more obvious social relevance. “The idea of the memory of witnesses in crimes and accidents seemed like a perfect fit for somebody who knew something about memory and had a keen interest in legal issues,” Dr. Loftus states. “It was a marriage of those two circumstances that led me to study eye-witness testimony.”
She has a split appointment at the University of California at Irvine in the Psychology and Social Behavior department and the Criminology, Law, and Society department. Although she works in both branches of the university, she considers herself a psychologist.
Because of her research on this topic, she has received many requests to testify or consult in court cases that involve memory disputes. Dr. Loftus says that she gets satisfaction from helping people who are innocent of what they have been accused and takes these stories back with her to the classroom to share with her students as learning opportunities.
In her daily life, understanding false memory has made her more understanding when someone makes a memory mistake around her. Dr. Loftus observes that she understands the malleable nature of memory, and that people don’t have to assume others are deliberately lying. They could be having a false memory. Researching and experience in the field has allowed her to feel more generously about other people in regard to memory mistakes.

SIDEBAR: Advice for Students
According to Dr. Loftus, students who want to be involved with false memory and eye witness testimony should look into cognitive and social psychology. Taking basic courses in these two areas will give students a good background and starting point in this area of study. Dr. Loftus also suggests studying memory as much as possible. She reveals that college courses sometimes completely focus on human memory, but if there is not a class like this offered at your university, memory is a huge part of a cognitive psychology course.

Dr. Loftus also stresses finding the right mentor for your graduate program. Finding one who is publishing in areas of the field that you are interested is important when making your decision about which program to attend. It is also important to see if the prospective mentor includes graduate students as coauthors on their articles. “Those coauthor bylines are going to help the graduate student ultimately get a job,” she affirms.

Elizabeth Loftus, PhD, is a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Irvine. She holds faculty positions in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior; the Department of Criminology, Law, and Society; and the School of Law. She received her PhD in psychology from Stanford University. Since then, she has published 22 books and over 500 scientific articles. Dr. Loftus’s research has focused on the malleability of human memory. She has been recognized for her research with seven honorary doctorates and election to numerous prestigious societies, including the National Academy of Sciences. She has been awarded numerous prizes for her work, including the 2016 John Maddox Prize, which is awarded to individuals who promote sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest, facing difficulty or hostility in doing so. She is past-president of the Association for Psychological Science, the Western Psychological Association (twice), and the American Psychology-Law Society.

Loftus’s memory research has led to her being called as an expert witness or consultant in hundreds of cases. Some of the more well-known cases include the McMartin PreSchool Molestation case, the Hillside Strangler, the Abscam cases, the trial of Oliver North, the trial of the officers accused in the Rodney King beating, the Menendez brothers, the Bosnian War trials in the Hague, the Oklahoma Bombing case; and litigation involving Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Bill Cosby, and the Duke University Lacrosse players.



Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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