Grand Illusions Of Memory: Keynote Address Showcases Evidence of False Memories

Elizabeth Loftus is one of the world’s foremost scientific experts on memory, having published 20 books and over 350 scientific articles on the subject. She has applied her research to the legal system, with an emphasis on studying the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Loftus, a Past President of APS, has served as an expert witness or consultant in hundreds of legal cases, including such well known cases as the McMartin pre-school molestation case, the Hillside Strangler case, Abscam, Oliver North, the Rodney King beating, the Menendez brothers, and the Michael Jackson case. She’s also worked on numerous cases involving allegations of repressed memories, “cases where people are coming forward and saying they remember that they were raped for 15 years continually, and that they banished these memories into the unconscious, and now they’re aware of it, or that they were raped in satanic rituals where they had to endure group sex, and animal sacrifice, and baby breeding, and baby sacrifice.”

“As a result of my involvement in some of these court cases where people seemed to be developing these really rich false memories, there was a challenge posed to me,” Loftus said. “If you’re going to talk about memory distortion [at the same time] that you’re talking about animal sacrifice and baby breeding, at least show us you can plant an entirely false memory for something that didn’t happen.”

Studying how people can develop false memories is one of her latest areas of research, as a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Irvine, where she holds positions in the department of psychology and social behavior and the department of criminology, law, and society. This was also the subject of “Grand Illusions of Memory,” her Keynote Address at the APS Annual Convention in Atlanta.

One of the most recent examples of Loftus’s research on creating false memories involves Alan Alda, who is known best as Hawkeye Pierce from the TV show “M*A*S*H.” What many people may not know is that Alda is a lifelong science buff, and host of “Scientific American Frontiers,” a television program dedicated to communicating scientific theories to the public.

Alda visited Loftus in Irvine to work on a show about memory. A week before Alda arrived, Loftus sent him some questionnaires, ostensibly designed to learn about his personality, and in particular, his food preferences. When he met Loftus, she explained to him that she and her colleagues had analyzed the data he sent back and discovered that Alda had once gotten very sick after eating too many hard-boiled eggs as a child.

Later, Loftus and her researchers had a picnic lunch with Alda. There was a smorgasbord of delicious food, but most importantly, there were some hard-boiled and deviled eggs. When offered some of these eggs, Alda refused to eat them. Of course his reluctance to eat the hard-boiled eggs could have come from a number of different sources. But his avoidance of eggs on that occasion was filmed and will be a part of the “Scientific American Frontiers” program on memory.

Loftus and her colleagues used this and other scenarios to plant false memories in research subjects. One is a story about being lost in the shopping mall as a child. In these experiments, the researchers tell the subject that they talked with older relatives of the subject, who told them a story about the time the subject got lost in the shopping mall. The paradigm is called the Familial Informant Narrative Procedure, or as Loftus refers to it, “the Lost in the Mall Technique.” Other investigators have used far more unusual, bizarre, painful, or even traumatic events to see if the subjects could create false memories. Subjects have been led to believe that they had been hospitalized overnight, that they had an embarrassing accident at a family wedding, or even that they were once the victims of a vicious animal attack, just to cite a few examples.

Most studies find that a significant minority of subjects, usually between 20 percent and 40 percent of subjects, will develop partial or complete false memories. An in-press article of Psychological Science, by Lindsay et al. (2003), reviewed several studies of false memories and found that the average false memory rate was 31 percent, but in individual studies the figures could sometimes exceed 50 percent.

What is even more striking is that some subjects have created what Loftus calls “rich false memories,” in which the person can feel confident, provide details, even express emotions about events that never happened. Loftus said, “These studies show that it is indeed possible to plant in the minds of ordinary adults pretty detailed scenarios about things that were completely made up by the experimenters.”

Loftus noted that one concern frequently raised about the theory that false memories can be created, is “How do the researchers know they are actually planting a false memory? Maybe these exercises are actually pulling up true memories that the subject had forgotten about.” Loftus and others have developed different techniques to test for this. Henry L. Roediger, III developed a method in which the subjects followed directions to interact with various objects on a table. There were common tasks, like “flip a coin,” and more unusual tasks, like “kiss the plastic frog.” The next day, the subjects would go through an imagination exercise, imagining performing some of the things they did the day before, and some other things they did not do. Later, about 15 percent of the time people reported that they had actually done the things they had only imagined doing, even with some of the more bizarre tasks. (Roediger is the current APS President.)

Another way to make sure that false memories were created, and that subjects were not just suddenly recalling true memories they had forgotten, was to use events that were impossible and could never have happened. One example of Loftus’s work, in collaboration with Kathy Braun and Rhiannon Ellis, involved the use of fake advertisements for a Walt Disney resort. The ads had a picture and a description that said the highlight of the trip was the chance to meet Bugs Bunny. This could never have happened, because Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers character, and as a Los Angeles Times editorialist said, “The wascally Wabbit would be awwested on sight.”

After the subjects viewed the ads, they were asked about their childhood experiences, whether they ever went to a Disney resort, and which characters they remembered meeting. In the first study, 16 percent of the subjects remembered meeting Bugs Bunny at Disneyland as a child.

One of Loftus’ graduate students, Melissa Grinley, began to question what exactly the subjects remembered about this impossible experience. She decided to probe them further for the details of this memory. In order to do this, she first boosted the false memory effect. As memory research has shown, “one of the ways to get more of something is just to repeat it.” So Grinley exposed people to multiple ads involving Bugs Bunny and she got the false memory effect up to 36 percent in one of her studies and 25 percent in another one. Then she asked them more questions about their Bugs Bunny encounter. The results showed 62 percent remembered shaking his hand, 46 percent remembered hugging him, and nearly a quarter remembered touching his ear, touching his tail, or hearing him say “What’s Up, Doc?” Yet none of these events could have ever happened, because he wasn’t there.

Loftus has proven that memory is not as reliable as many people believe. Researchers have known for some time now that people are prone to distorting the facts of memories, and Loftus has shown that people are capable of making up memories for events that never even happened. In other words, people are capable of creating “Grand Illusions of Memory.”

REFERENCES Lindsay, D S, Hagen, L, Read, J D, Wade, K A, & Garry, M. (2003) True photographs and false memories. Psychological Science, in press.

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