Meet the people shaping the future of science

Remember this... 4, 2003

Elizabeth Loftus was enjoying her life researching the unreliability of memory in adults and children, and was often called as an expert witness in major trials such as that of OJ Simpson. By the mid-1980s those cases increasingly involved sexual abuse. But when her own work questioned the theory of repressed memory of sexual abuse, all hell broke loose. A woman hit her with a rolled-up newspaper. Worse, as she told Wendy M. Grossman, the controversy made her enemies - and propelled her out of her much-loved job

You do seem to have a lot of critics .

The American Psychological Association is giving me an award this summer, and some enemies have written complaining about it. It's hard to adjust to having enemies, because they are so vicious. So many hornets.

Did you grow up hoping to be controversial?

No. I wanted everyone to like me!

I started out doing research on the memory of witnesses to crimes and accidents, and I thought I should look at what it's really like in the real world, so I volunteered to work on some cases for free. That's how I got involved in legal cases. When I was just doing work on memory distortion of crimes and accidents, I didn't ruffle too many feathers. Some prosecutors probably weren't too happy, because my work was used more by defence attorneys.

So how did you move from high-profile cases to repressed sexual abuse?

In the 1990s, the theory of repressed memory came along, and I saw really wild tales being fobbed off on people -- for example, 10 years of rapes being repressed into memory and then being recovered under therapy. There is no scientific evidence for this. And then I faced the wrath of the repressed memory crowd - therapists and patients - and they fight dirty.

Are there really therapists who benefit from keeping their patients angry and desperate?

There were some surveys done of both US and UK mental health professionals that show that the practice of some of these questionable techniques is far more widespread than we thought before. That may have changed, but they haven't all changed.

One of your most widely reported recent experiments involved implanting false memories. How did you go about it?

In one experiment, these involved being lost in a shopping mall as a child. In another, the memories were demonstrably false, such as shaking hands with Bugs Bunny (a Warner Brothers character) at DisneyWorld. The point was to show how easy it is to be convinced you have experienced something that never took place.

Some researchers argue that you can't compare such experiments to cases of repressed memories of child sexual abuse...

It challenges their cherished beliefs to say that some of these accusations might be false, so they find whatever ways they can to discredit the work. They say: "They're just college students", "They're just lost in a mall, not being sexually abused", or "It got implanted through imagination and not through psychotherapy". But when thousands of psychologists study the human mind, we don't think we're only studying college students sitting in a lab. We think we are studying principles that apply to a variety of human beings in a variety of settings. It's as if somebody said: "You've shown that if you shoot somebody in the head with a pistol they die, but you haven't shown that if you shoot them in the head with a pistol and in a bowling alley, they die."

Then there was a real case. Tell me about "Jane Doe".

The case purported to be new proof of repressed memory. I read a 1997 article about "Jane Doe" and her family in the journal Child Maltreatment. She supposedly repressed a memory of her mother molesting her that was captured on videotape when she was six years old, and she supposedly doesn't remember and then recovers the memory of it when she's 17. The psychiatrist David Corwin was presenting videotapes of her recovering her lost memory and he wrote the article based on them. It was being used as the new proof, and I just wasn't convinced.

Why? What did you do to check it out?

There were 280 million people in America, and I thought: "How am I ever going to find these people?" I didn't think it would be possible. But I found them by using clues in the tapes themselves which I'd got hold of because one of the commentators showed them to me, thinking I'd be converted to believe in repression. I searched public records and files. To my knowledge, no one else found her through my work. I'm proud of what I did.

Are these the techniques journalists use every day and get praised for?

It's just like you could get into Monica Lewinsky's parents' divorce file if it's not sealed. Once I found the name of the family I could get into the divorce file relating to Doe's parents, and once I looked at the documents in the public file which wasn't sealed, I felt convinced the mother had been railroaded when she lost custody of Jane Doe in the early 1980s, so I sent somebody to talk to her. This mother just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. She never thought the day would come. I acquired a co-author, Mel Guyers, a professor from the University of Michigan, and we went to meet the mother. There was a massive five years of horrible back-and-forth litigation between the parents as they fought for custody and child support.

But "Jane Doe" complained ?

She sent an email to the University of Washington saying that her privacy was being violated. But when the girl complained, we hadn't interviewed her. We had decided not to, for complicated reasons. The irony is that she actually contacted somebody to ask for my help to get back in touch with her mother.

What was the university's reaction?

After more than 25 years there, they gagged me for a year and nine months, and seized all my files on the case. I was shocked that the university would respond that way. I was eventually exonerated but still felt bitter about the experience. And then 10 months later I was offered a huge job - a 50 per cent salary increase, huge resources, titled professorship, and even then I still agonised about leaving my friends, my ex-husband whom I'm still close to, but I took the job, at the University of California, Irvine. The first thing I did was publish a detailed critique in Skeptical Inquirer. And "Jane Doe" is suing for defamation as well as invasion of privacy, and included Carol Tavris, who wrote an article supporting us, in the suit.

That's an expensive proposition, isn't it?

When I had to defend myself in the university matter, I had to shell out a lot of money. Fortunately now UC Irvine is behind me, and I also have some defence from Skeptical Inquirer.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on studies I'm very excited about, looking at the consequences of having a false belief or having a false memory. Most of the studies I and others have done ask if you believe it's true and then the experiment stops. Now, we are delaying the debriefing to see whether your behaviour changes as a result of having a false memory. We're showing that these false beliefs and memories can have consequences.

How are you doing this?

We try to plant the memory that as a child the person got sick eating a particular food, for example, eggs. We are looking to see if the person avoids that food. Essentially, we are using false feedback. We feed a bunch of their data into a sophisticated computer program that pulls out a food-history profile and then we tell our subjects that the really smart computer has determined that these things must have happened. We are submitting a paper soon for publication. I thought we were studying the consequences of false beliefs, but I'm quite excited about the potential implications. I never thought of it as a dieting technique, for example.

How many people will be susceptible ?

Generally, under the most liberal definition, it's not even 40 per cent who become more confident that this happened to them as a result of the manipulation. But it is a significant minority. Next I want to show that if you have a picnic and put that food out those people really won't eat it.

Is there any pattern that shows who might be more or less susceptible to implanted memories?

People have done some studies of individual differences. One thing that seems to pop up more than other variables is: are you somebody who tends to have lapses in memory and attention? If you have a propensity for that, you are more susceptible to these kinds of contaminations. For example, if you can't remember if you did something or just thought about doing it, or can't remember if you did something or dreamed about it. There is at least a modest but significant correlation.

Is there any reliable way to tell false memories from real ones?

Statistically, there are differences.

Real memories have more sensory detail, for example, and are sometimes held with more confidence. But the problem is that false memories that get rehearsed can get more confident, and be filled with detail and become more and more like real memories.

Do you have a passion for innocence?

Yes. I don't know the source, but I've had it a long time. I was on the disciplinary committee at University of California at Los Angeles when I was a student, and I was known as "second-chance Fishman", which was my unmarried name. I just can't stand the idea of someone who's innocent being railroaded, let alone locked up. There are all those people who, when somebody cries abuse, want to embrace it, and my first thought is to wonder if this is a false accusation.

How can we make the justice system fairer, given that the malleability of memory taints eyewitness testimony and identification line-ups turn out to be no good when victims have been shown photographs because the line-ups look more familiar?

There are lots of things to do at various stages. Follow the Department of Justice guidelines for law enforcement issued in October 1999, use blind testing at line-ups and educate juries about the vagaries of eyewitness accounts.

What led you into research into memory in the first place?

I credit a couple of professors, John Freedman for getting me interested, and Gordon Bower for helping to support my interests and career. And there is a famous psychologist from Britain, Frederick Bartlett, who back in 1932 really helped to promote the whole idea of the reconstruction of memory. He should not be forgotten. I read his book when I started to find distortion in memory in experiments.

Have you noticed a change in our perceptions of human memory ?

The computer memory used to be the metaphor back in the 1970s. For 30 years I've been pushing the point that human memory is not perfect. In 1980 I was trying to get these ideas across to a wide public, and had a full-page review in Time magazine that was translated into many languages. I think the field of psychology definitely now appreciates the malleability of memory.

Has the public got it?

You see this work being discussed in every psychology book. Certainly psychology students - over a million take introductory university psychology classes every year - are being exposed to the message. Whether they get it is another story.

What do you make of movies like Memento, which follows the story of a man who can't form any short-term memories?

It's interesting to me that you could have an injury and not be able to store new memories. HM, who had a similar injury to the one in the film, was one of the most famous patients. The film had such points of accuracy that I thought the film-maker must have known about HM. Then I met the film-maker's brother, who wrote the short story it was based on, and was surprised that there seemed to have been relatively little research and consultation on the part of the brother who wrote the screenplay. But the beginning of a Philip K. Dick story where they are implanting false memory of a vacation - that's closer to the kind of work I do.

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