Elizabeth Loftus begins her talk at TEDGlobal 2013 with the tragic story of Steve Titus, who was arrested in 1980 because he sort of matched the physical description of, and drove a similar car to, a man who had raped a woman in his area. Looking at a photo lineup, the victim told police that Titus looked “the closest” to the man who had raped her. But by the time the trial began, the victim had become certain that Titus was the attacker.
Memory scholar Elizabeth Loftus worked on this case, and became fascinated by the question: How did the victim’s memory go from uncertain to certain? The stakes of this shift were unbelievably high. While Titus was eventually exonerated by a journalist who tracked down the real rapist, he lost faith in the justice system, lost his job and fianceé, and became obsessed with what had happened to him. He died of a stress-related heart attack at age 35.
Loftus studies memory, but in an unconventional way. “I don’t study when people forget,” she says. “I study when people remember things that didn’t happen. I study false memories.” It’s an issue that comes up often in courts, which highly value witness testimony. In a survey of 300 cases of wrongful conviction, where a person was later exonerated of a crime, three-quarters of them had been incarcerated due to faulty human memory.
Read the whole story: TED Blog