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What Memories Are Made Of (Elizabeth Loftus)

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Elizabeth Loftus in conversation with Howard Burton

The holiday season, for better or worse, is a time of year richly associated with memories: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but nearly always formative.  Or so we all believe.

We usher in the new year with Auld Lang Syne, the Robert Burns poem that begins Should old (auld) acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind and continues for a further five verses or so that most of us have, rather ironically, either resoundingly forgotten or never bothered to learn.

In short, memory is the vital human ingredient for reflection, taking stock, and – hopefully – making progress.

But what if memory itself is far more tenuous, very far from the reliably objective record of the past that we all believe? What if, instead, they are foggy, unreliable accounts that can be fairly easily manipulated?

I’m not talking science fiction here, or the tragic turmoil facing Alzheimer’s patients, but simply the normal, everyday memories that make up all of our mental lives.

Impossible? Paranoid?

Well, let me introduce you to Beth Loftus.

Beth is Distinguished Professor of Social Ecology, and Professor of Law and Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine, but most people know her as the psychologist who shook the foundations of our understanding of eyewitness memory.

It all began innocently enough. Frustrated with being mired in technical and relatively abstruse psychological research about memory and language, she began to turn her attention to people’s recollection of traffic accidents.

It turned out that subtle differences in so-called leading questions – such as asking witnesses how fast the cars were going when they “smashed into each other” as opposed to simply when they “hit each other” – had a demonstrable, statistically significant, effect on their responses.

But these minor cracks in our recollection – what Beth and her colleagues later termed The Misinformation Effect – turned out to be only the tip of the memory iceberg.

In 1990 George Franklin was convicted of murdering an 8-year-old girl in 1969 based upon his daughter Eileen’s testimony that surfaced 20 years later as a result of so-called “repressed memory therapy.”

If you’re wondering where, scientifically speaking, “repressed memory therapy” came from, and what made it admissible in a court of law, you’re not alone. That’s exactly what was going through Beth’s mind too.

“This idea of repression, I asked myself, what is it exactly? What’s the evidence for it? Where did it come from? I started to look into that.”

Beth became increasingly skeptical of the claims of the repressed-memory therapists. Of course it was impossible for her to conclusively prove in all cases that what repressed-memory clients were averring was untrue, but what she could do was simply demonstrate the ease of implanting false memories in unsuspecting patients.

And that she promptly did, successfully convincing about 25% of volunteers that they had undergone a specific, harrowing, experience in their youth: being lost in a mall and found by a kindly old woman. This result was later confirmed in a spectrum of other memory implantation experiments throughout the psychological community (near-drownings, attacks from vicious animals, witnessing demonic possessions, and more).

Many in the “repressed-memory community” didn’t take too kindly to Beth’s investigations. This went considerably beyond the standard sort of professional schism between attackers and defenders of some particular medical treatment or avenue of research. Beth was regularly harassed, letters urging her professional dismissal were written to both the president of her university and the state governor, and she began to receive death threats. Things got so bad that at one point she was forced to have police protection during her talks, exposing her to a whole new way of using a speaker’s podium, as she describes in the clip below:

Aside from its obvious affront to free speech, critical thinking, and basic common decency, Beth’s experiences made me think of something else: where were all the other psychotherapists during all of this? Why didn’t they join Beth in her skeptical analysis, demanding that their repressed-memory peers conclusively demonstrate the accuracy of their findings given the extraordinarily high personal stakes involved for all concerned? And what does this say about the entire psychology community at the time, and the scientific merits of psychoanalysis in particular?

I’m not saying that psychoanalysis should be roundly condemned or ignored, of course. Aside from the fact that I don’t pretend to know anything about it, the few encounters I’ve had with those who do (like Elyn Saks) have gone a considerable way to convince me that, at least in some circumstances, psychoanalysis can be very beneficial.

Which seems to me all the more reason for practicing psychoanalysts to welcome a rigorously scientific approach to their discipline, so as to better protect their patients (and others) from falling prey to the latest, unfounded, fads that happen to come along, as they surely will.

Worth remembering, that.


Two short videos featuring Beth, Repressed Memory Aftermath and The Misinformation Effect, are freely available on our website landing page this week.

For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Elizabeth Loftus, click here. The eBook, The Malleability of Memory, which contains the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with Elizabeth Loftus and a range of additional resources, is available on Amazon, while the podcast of The Malleability of Memory is now freely available on iTunes.

All Ideas Roadshow videos are available for individual purchase or by subscription ($10/month, $100/year), while all eBooks are available for purchase on Amazon.  Institutional subscriptions are offered through our Academic, School and Public Library portals.


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