Making Memories

Continuing an illustrious career as a memory researcher and advocate for scientific freedom, Grawemeyer Award winner Elizabeth Loftus is applying her work in new ways.

In an episode of the PBS TV science-education series, “Scientific American Frontiers,” host Alan Alda sat down to a picnic lunch with faculty and students from the University of California, Irvine. When asked if he wanted some of the hard-boiled or deviled eggs on hand at the meal, Alda politely turned the offer down. He told the picnickers that as a child, he had once gotten sick from eating too many hard-boiled eggs.

All perfectly innocent … except for the fact that Alda’s childhood memory of disliking eggs had been implanted only a few hours before the picnic.

The researcher behind the star’s sudden change in cuisine preference was APS Past President Elizabeth Loftus, a distinguished research professor at UC Irvine with positions in three departments: psychology and social behavior; criminology, law, and society; and cognitive sciences. She also is a fellow of UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

For more than three decades, Loftus has been a pioneer in the study of human memory. The trail that she is best known for blazing is an understanding of how memories can be modified by facts, ideas, suggestions, and other forms of postevent information. It is a path that has brought Loftus tremendous career satisfaction, worldwide recognition, and countless opportunities to fight for justice in the courtroom, but also has made her a target of deep animosity from some whose assumptions she has challenged.

Most recently, Loftus has received one of psychology’s top honors: the 2005 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award, which comes with a $200,000 prize.

The Grawemeyer Award committee noted that Loftus’s research has “affected the way law enforcement agencies and the court system view such testimony.” “Affected” is putting it mildly. But Loftus takes it all in stride, secure in the feeling that she is helping others.

“False memories can have serious consequences and if accepted blindly as truth, they can ruin reputations, shatter families, and even send innocent people to jail,” Loftus said. “By showing that memory is malleable, we’ve balanced the equation a bit. We’ve made it clear that memories — especially in the courtroom — should not be believed without corroboration.”

Loftus’s work was first brought to the attention of the legal profession by a 1974 article in Psychology Today, in which she documented her first courtroom experience: a murder trial in which she and a lawyer friend proved that eyewitness testimony was conflicting and gained an acquittal for the defendant. Since then, Loftus has been invited to consult or testify in hundreds of trials where memories are the heart of the prosecution’s case. The list includes some of the most famous tribunals of the past 30 years: the O. J. Simpson trial, the Menendez brothers murders, the Abscam government-corruption hearings, and the mass-murder trials of the Hillside Stranglers and Ted Bundy. It also includes a host of less-famous defendants — mostly parents, priests, and others accused of sexual misconduct based on the recovery of “hidden memories.”

Combining the study of memory with her deep interest in legal issues has been exceptionally rewarding, Loftus said. Add in the opportunity to improve someone’s quality of life — perhaps even save him or her from unjust imprisonment — and Loftus says that she cannot imagine anything that could make her happier.

Still, she has had her share of difficulties. Prosecutors hated her when they lost cases after she testified that eyewitness accounts were not infallible. Alleged victims of abuse who had “reliv[ed] repressed memories of the crime” scorned Loftus when she went to bat for the people they accused. A stranger on a plane once slapped her with a newspaper. Women’s-rights activist Gloria Steinem published an article that said Loftus was completely wrong about her research findings. Loftus even learned to use a gun after she received death threats.

In presenting the APS William James Fellow award to Loftus in 2001, then-President Robert Bjork described her as “a rare scientist who is instrumental both in advancing a scientific discipline and in using that discipline to make critical contributions to society.”

“In bringing to light these facts of memory,” said Bjork, Loftus “joins the ranks of other scientists past and present who have had the courage, inspiration and inner strength to weather the widespread scorn and oppression that unfortunately but inevitably accompany clear and compelling scientific data that have the effrontery to fly in the fact of dearly held beliefs.”

The controversy isn’t limited to the legal arena. Loftus’ findings over the years have led to heated debates in the psychology community on such topics as repressed memory. Both Science News and Psychology Today referred to the fray over her work as “The Memory Wars.” However, even in the fact of threats to her reputation and to her safety, she never wavered from her obsession with finding the truth about memory. In the process, Loftus gained the respect of the majority of the psychology community and the world of science at large. In addition to receiving APS’s highest honors — the William James Fellow and the James McKeen Cattell Fellow awards — she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. She holds honorary degrees from four universities, is the author or coauthor of 20 books, and has published more than 350 scientific papers. Perhaps the greatest tribute prior to the Grawemeyer Award came in 2002 when The Review of General Psychology listed her 58th among the top 100 psychologists of the 20th century, making her the highest-ranked woman.

So what is the next addition to this remarkable string of achievements? Most recently, Loftus and her team at UC Irvine — postdoctoral fellow Dan Bernstein and graduate students Cara Laney and Erin Morris — have moved their research on memory from the courtroom to the dining room.

“We’re currently studying how implanted false memories can affect the dietary choices people make,” Loftus said. “For example, we’ve shown that we can give subjects a phony memory of a negative experience with eggs [like the one implanted in Alan Alda’s mind] or pickles, and they’ll avoid those foods afterward. On the other hand, an implanted phony memory of a positive experience with asparagus leads to an increased inclination to eat the vegetable.”

While Loftus is excited at the prospect of someday using memory modification to help people lose weight and maintain a healthy diet, she cautions that this application of her work still has a few wrinkles to be ironed out.

“Although we were successful at convincing people that they had once become sick from eating chocolate cake or potato chips, we couldn’t alter their behavior for these popular, hard-to-resist foods,” Loftus said. “So, maybe the Lay’s folks were right when their ads stated that ‘you can’t just eat one’ of their chips.”

Loftus and her team speculate that the reason for the discrepancy is the type of food used. “We believe that false memories work best if they’re about a food that is not a universal favorite,” she explained. “That’s why our experiments with pickles, eggs, asparagus, and strawberry ice cream actually led to a new avoidance or acceptance of the food.”

Some researchers are urging Loftus to apply her work beyond the dining room. A friend and dental researcher recently asked her if memory-distortion could be used to make kids believe going to the dentist is a positive experience. “The great thing about learning how memory distortion works is that the research opens up a world of opportunities for future applications,” Loftus said. “Every time the phone rings these days, it seems it’s someone with a new idea on how we can manipulate memory to improve our quality of life.”

Winning the Grawemeyer is sure to keep the phone in Loftus’s office busy. The prestige of the award, she said, has brought a new level of respect to her research and has helped quiet her critics. Members of the psychology community who have known and worked with her say that no one is more deserving of the honor.

“Across her entire career, Beth Loftus has been able to see the personal and societal implications of her work — and the courage to defend those implications when they have led to controversial conclusions,” said Bjork, University of California, Los Angeles. “By embracing all of the various demands and difficulties of research, teaching, and service with a singular enthusiasm, Beth has provided an admirable, if daunting, model for young researchers.”

Bjork’s praise is echoed by the man who nominated Loftus for the Grawemeyer Award, former UC Irvine department of psychology and social behavior chair Chuansheng Chen. Chen said that Loftus is “one of the best-known living psychologists and a remarkably productive scholar whose ingenious and influential studies provide a superb example of how theory and practice can be merged.”

The current head of the department at UC Irvine, Karen Rook, added that Loftus’s research “has profoundly changed our understanding of the reliability and malleability of human memory, and has had enormous impact on both psychology and the law. We’re all extremely delighted that she is the recipient of the Grawemeyer Award in Psychology.”

The one thing that winning the Grawemeyer has not changed about Loftus is the principle by which she steers her career and her life: serving others. Even when the news arrived that she was the Grawemeyer awardee, Loftus focused not on herself but on her students. “My first thought was that I had to take them out to a big dinner to thank them for making the award possible,” Loftus said. “We had a great time.”

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.