The World’s Top False-Memory Expert Explains Why Everything You Know Might Be Wrong

Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, Michael Jackson, Rodney King, Martha Stewart, and Oliver North—Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has testified on behalf of them all.

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Nov 5 2014, 4:27pm

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus. Photo by the author

Ted Bundy, O. J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, Michael Jackson, Rodney King, Martha Stewart, and Oliver North–Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has testified on behalf of them all. The cognitive psychologist is recognized as the world's foremost authority on false memory formation. Her decades of study suggest that people are highly susceptible to creating false memories, especially when "coached", either consciously or unconsciously, by authority figures.

Her research has made her a nightmare for prosecutors across the country, and an essential addition to any high-profile legal defense team. I sat down with the 60-year-old professor recently at her office at the University of California–Irvine to find out whether we can ever really trust what we think we know.

VICE: First, I have to say, you've gotten a lot of my psychologist friends off jury duty. All they have to do is cite your research and they're gone. I know they'd want to thank you for that.
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus: Ha! Michael Creighton even used my research to get out of jury duty. I have his letter right here. He says, "The prosecution was suggesting there might be one eyewitness in a murder trial, and did anyone have a problem with that? I asked if he knew the research of Elizabeth Loftus, and I was gone on his first preemptory!"

When did you first suspect that memories could be so inaccurate?
Well, it was in the 70s. I was in graduate school working on memory in a really theoretical way, and I just wanted to work on something with more obvious social relevance. I thought about witness memory related to crimes and accidents. I started looking at memory around car accidents. The question was, "How do leading questions affect what people remember?" I began to see these questions as really just a vehicle for communicating information to people. When you ask, "Did you see the broken headlight?" it communicates to someone that there was a broken headlight. Witnesses also get information when they talk to other witnesses, when they overhear other witnesses, and when they're exposed to media coverage, and this information can cause a contamination of memories. That's the misinformation effect.

Do you see that effect in your own life?
Well, let me backtrack a little first. I started working on the George Franklin case in 1990, and there was a woman saying that she had repressed memories of sex abuse committed by her father and other men. The work I had done up to that point was things like turning stop signs into yield signs or making people remember seeing broken glass [in car-crash videos] when there hadn't been any. Here you had somebody remembering a murder and a rape. That's what eventually led me to the idea of doing the lost-in-the-mall study.

That was where you were able to implant false memories that people had been lost in a mall as children, right?
Yes. And, while I was doing that study, I went to a family reunion—no, it was my uncle's 90th birthday party. Anyway, at the birthday party, one of my relatives was reminiscing about when my mother had drowned when I was 14. She said, "You found the body." I said, "No, I didn't find the body. My aunt found the body." But this relative insisted that I was the one. Eventually, I started thinking, Well it's possible that I did and I don't remember. Over the next few days, I started to visualize this, and I started to kind of believe that maybe I was the one. I started to do the typical confirmation biases--remembering little details that seemed consistent with the idea that I'd had this awful experience. Then the relative called and said, "I'm sorry. It was a mistake. You didn't find the body." But by then, I was on my way to developing this really rich false memory.

Does your awareness of false memories make you better able to avoid that now?
Well, I had a colleague who thought it would be great fun to try and trick me. He told me that his wife Nancy was very embarrassed to be wearing the same dress that night that she had been wearing the last time I saw her. So, when I saw Nancy, I said something like, "Nancy, that dress looks just great on you—just as great as last time." And they got such a kick out of that. Now, that's a minor little thing, but you can imagine how important the misinformation effect is when you're dealing with criminal cases.

I understand that you gave testimony at the Bosnian War trials. What was that like?
That was a very emotionally charged experience. This was about 15 years ago or more. Some of my facts could be slightly off, but a Croatian was standing trial. He was accused of being involved in the kidnapping and holding of a Muslim woman. For months, she was badly treated, raped, and other horrible things. Ultimately, she would live and be free. Anyway, the defendant was not accused of doing the rapes. He was accused of being there on the day when she arrived in this holding camp. The woman had initially described a person with dark hair. But when the defendant had light hair, she changed her memory to light hair.

What research are you working on now?
I'm working a lot with my graduate students. I worked recently with Steven Frenda, studying sleep deprivation and false memories. Essentially, it seems that people who are sleep-deprived are more susceptible to memory contamination. I think that's important practically, because police often interview people when they are in a state of sleep deprivation. Often, they deliberately keep suspects awake and tired to try to get them to confess or to make mistakes. That can lead to false confessions. We know from the Innocence Project in New York that around a quarter of wrongful convictions are associated with false confessions.

Steven's doctoral dissertation is on a different problem, which is about how we are more prone to adopt false memories when they make us look better and feel better about ourselves.

Does that ever work in the other direction too?
Sometimes you can remember things being worse if it serves a purpose. There's a wonderful book called The Harmony of Illusions by Allan Young. He embedded himself in a psychiatric unit of a veterans hospital, and basically watched as these vets got worse and remembered things as being worse and worse and worse. He talked about the benefits of it. It's a system that rewards illness. You get more benefits.

Is it possible that we're actually designed to have false memories, to protect ourselves?
You know, right now people are often asking why would Darwin or God or whatever your theory is—why they would have created us with a system that is so prone to distortion? What purpose does it serve? There's a whole lot of work that shows that we remember we got better grades than we really did, or that we voted in elections we didn't vote in, or that we gave more to charity than we really did. The self-enhancing distortions may allow us to live a happier life.

It occurs to me that maybe they strengthen social cohesion, too. If everyone has the same memory, even if it's the wrong memory, it might maintain relationships. Maybe those relationships are more important than accuracy in some cases. 
Memory does have a social function. Obviously, when we share memories and reminisce together, there's a bonding, and maybe it brings us closer.

I've always loved the philosophical implications of your research. If memory is the primary way we form our identity, and if our memories are so fallible, do we ever see ourselves clearly? Is it ever really possible to know who we are?
Probably not perfectly, but maybe that's OK. Just like we have nearsightedness and all kinds of visual problems—we understand it, we do what we can about it, and we live with it. Still, a lot of people get upset about my research. They get especially upset when it's about sex abuse. But even before I entered the memory wars of the 90s, I think there was a little bit of not quite wanting to believe that memory is as malleable as it is.

How do you think journalists should handle the presentation of memory—you know, assembling a narrative? You've shown different words can cause various biases in perception.
Well, in many situations you can't really know. In some situations you can. For example, I know that "smashed" is a more biasing word than "hit," because I did an experiment. I showed people a video of a car crash and asked how fast they thought the cars were going when they either "hit" or "smashed." It showed that people give you higher estimates of speed with the word "smashed." A week later, they're also more likely to report that they saw broken glass that didn't exist. I've lectured lawyers about this and they come up afterward asking, "Is there a book somewhere that I could buy about which words have which effects?" I don't think these lawyers necessarily mean to be dishonest, but where's the line between zealous representation and witness tampering?

I was thinking about your research recently when I was in Iceland. There's a statistic that 54 percent of Icelanders believe in elves. I talked to a lot of these people for a project about dreams that I'm working on. Many of them recalled actually seeing elves and playing with them as children. Do you have any thoughts on that?
You don't have to go all the way to Iceland. You can find people here who believe they've been abducted by aliens.

I understand that you've done research using dreams. Can you talk about that?
Well, of the various therapy techniques that I've run across, there are certain ones that really make me worry. Guided imagination, for example. They'll say, "You don't remember anybody abusing you? Why don't you just close your eyes and imagine who might've done this to you, because you've got all the symptoms?" That's a technique that I would see in all these medical records I was reviewing for cases.

Therapists would also take dream material and interpret it as evidence of sex abuse. "If she dreamt about a snake—that was a penis." I worked with Giuliana Mazzoni to see whether we could take people's dream material and make them think they had an experience that they didn't have. We did a study where whatever dreams people reported, a clinical psychologist would interpret it as evidence that somewhere you were lost for an extended time in an unfamiliar place and you were extremely uncomfortable.

So, now that you've proven how prone to misinformation we really are, what do we do about that? For example, how should eyewitness testimony be perceived?
Well, that depends. A lot of eyewitness testimony is uncontaminated and not particularly problematic.

Is it given too much weight?
I would say: Don't take the verbal report at face value. Find out how the sausage was made.

Follow Roc's latest project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.

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