Memory researcher wins Grawemeyer

The Courier-Journal/November 30, 2004
By Laura Ungar

A researcher whose controversial work on false memory has been used to defend those accused of child molestation has won the 2005 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Psychology.

Elizabeth Loftus is the most controversial researcher ever to win the $200,000 prize and the most controversial Grawemeyer winner since former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev won the 1994 prize for improving world order, said Rich Lewine, a UofL professor who is chairman of the psychology award.

"We did this strictly on the basis of the quality of her work. ... She's really solid," Lewine said. "One always risks with potent ideas to have potent reaction."

Loftus' work on false recollections and the reliability of eyewitness reports, as well as her questioning of memories "recovered" through therapy, have affected the way police and the courts view such testimony. Her ideas have also stirred such hostility that she has received death threats and has been forced to bring armed guards to speaking engagements.

Much of the criticism of Loftus comes from abuse victims and their advocates.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said he was sexually abused as a child in the 1960s but repressed the memory until the early 1990s, when he saw a movie dealing with sexual abuse called "Nuts." He said Loftus' work implies that his experience was impossible.

"Her work has been used to give aid and comfort to child molesters," said Clohessy, of St. Louis. "I'm sure there are plenty of psychologists doing important work. I wish one of them had been given this award instead."

He said he is especially disappointed that Loftus is being honored in Louisville. Since 2002, more than 200 people have sued the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville and two local religious orders, alleging abuse by dozens of priests and other people associated with the church. Most cases have been settled or are pending. The archdiocese reached a $25.7million settlement with 243 plaintiffs last year, one of the largest settlements of any diocese in the nation.

"There has been so much pain," Clohessy said. "I worry that for some folks there, this will be like rubbing salt into wounds."

But Loftus said she is honored to receive the award. She said her work has shown that there are false memories, which can lead to false accusations. There are false cases of sexual abuse, she said, as well as true ones.

"I am sorry if there are people who don't want to accept that there are false memories," said Loftus, who plans to use some of the Grawemeyer money to continue her research. "Do I want to do my work in a sea of hostility directed at me? No."

Influence on law

Loftus, 60, is distinguished research professor at the University of California-Irvine, with academic positions in psychology and social behavior; criminology, law and society and cognitive sciences.

She has testified or consulted in many high-profile cases, including those involving Michael Jackson, Rodney King and the Oklahoma City bombing. She has won numerous honors, written or co-written 20 books and has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Loftus' research on eyewitness accounts of crimes and accidents found that the questioning process influenced people's memories of events. Other research suggested that people can vividly recall events that never happened. She said she has never seen evidence of repressed memories; one of the books she co-wrote is called "The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse."

One of the most famous studies by Loftus and her colleagues involved giving subjects a fake advertisement for Disneyland featuring Bugs Bunny and asking them about their childhood experiences at the theme park. About 16percent of those exposed to the ad later said they had met Bugs at Disneyland - and the percentages rose with multiple exposures to the fake ads, she wrote in the journal "Current Directions in Psychological Science." Some even "remembered" touching the character's ear or hugging him.

"Of course, this memory is impossible because Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros. character and would not be found at a Disney theme park," Loftus wrote in the journal. "But the study shows that suggestive methods are indeed capable of leading to false beliefs or memories."

In the same article, she cites a much more serious example of faulty memory: the case of Larry Mayes of Indiana, who was convicted of raping a gas station cashier after the victim identified him in court. DNA evidence later revealed he did not commit the crime, she said, and he was freed after spending 21 years in prison.

Chuansheng Chen, an associate professor at UC-Irvine who nominated Loftus, called her "one of the giants in psychology." She was one of 34 people nominated for the award.

"Her work has reached not only scholars in the fields of psychology and the law but a variety of other audiences, including policy makers, practitioners and the general public," he wrote in his nominating letter. "She has done more than any other social scientist to educate the legal community about the limitations and malleability of human memory."

Critics decry her work

But Dr. Charles L. Whitfield, a physician and trauma researcher from Atlanta, Ga., said Loftus has hurt innumerable child-abuse victims. "She does anything and everything to invalidate their experiences," said Whitfield, who works with victims. "So far, no one has proved the existence of anything like a false memory syndrome."

Sue Archibald, president of The Linkup, a Kentucky-based national advocacy group for survivors of clergy abuse, said she is upset about the way Loftus' false-memory ideas have been applied in the cases of abusive priests.

"The church has looked to her work for its defense. Her career has really advanced because of the clergy-abuse scandal," Loftus said. "Most people have accepted that clergy abuse has occurred." But "there are still lots of people in Louisville who believe the victims made it all up."

Lewine, the UofL professor, said human memory needs to be studied further.

"The extreme camps need to give a bit," he said. "Whenever people get upset, they obstruct learning from each other."

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