Can You Tell a False Memory From a True One?

New Scientist
Stories from New Scientist.
Sept. 8 2013 9:30 AM

I Could Have Sworn …

An interview with false-memory expert Elizabeth Loftus.

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University of California–Irvine psychologist and law professor Elizabeth Loftus can make you remember things you never experienced.

Hoang Xuan Pham

From repressed memories to faulty eyewitness testimony, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California–Irvine, has made her name working on false memory. She tells Alison George how recollections can be conjured up, and how this process could even be used in therapy.

Alison George: You study the fallibility of memories. Are we all prone to making things up?
Elizabeth Loftus: We all have memories that are malleable and susceptible to being contaminated or supplemented in some way.

AG: I hear you collect accounts of false memories.
EL: Yes, mostly embarrassing mistakes that politicians have made. For example, Mitt Romney had a memory of being at the Golden Jubilee—an important festival in Michigan—and it turned out that the event occurred nine months before he was born.

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AG: How does this happen? What exactly is going on when we retrieve a memory?
EL: When we remember something, we're taking bits and pieces of experience—sometimes from different times and places—and bringing it all together to construct what might feel like a recollection but is actually a construction. The process of calling it into conscious awareness can change it, and now you're storing something that's different. We all do this, for example, by inadvertently adopting a story we've heard—like Romney did.

AG: How did you end up studying false memories?
EL: Early in my career, I had done some very theoretical studies of memory, and after that I wanted to [do] work that had more obvious practical uses. The memory of witnesses to crimes and accidents was a natural place to go. In particular I looked at what happens when people are questioned about their experiences. I would ultimately see those questions as a means by which the memories got contaminated.

AG: You're known for debunking the idea of repressed memories. Why focus on them?
EL: In the 1990s we began to see these recovered-memory cases. In the first big one, a man called George Franklin was on trial. His daughter claimed she had witnessed her father kill her best friend when she was 8 years old—but had only remembered this 20 years later. And that she had been raped by him and repressed that memory too. Franklin was convicted of the murder, and that started this repressed-memory ball rolling through the legal system. We began to see hundreds of cases where people were accusing others based on claims of repressed memory. That's what first got me interested.

AG: How did you study the process of creating false memories?
EL: We needed a different paradigm for studying these types of recollections. I developed a method for creating "rich false memories" by using strong suggestion. The first such memory was about getting lost in a shopping mall as a child.

AG: How susceptible are people to having these types of memories implanted?
EL: Depending on the study, you might get as many as 50 percent of people falling for the suggestion and developing a complete or partial false memory.

AG: Do you think it's not possible to repress memories of traumatic events?
EL: It is possible not to think about something for a long time, even something unpleasant that happened to you. But what's been claimed in these repressed-memory cases is something, by definition, that's too extreme to be explained by ordinary forgetting and remembering. They're saying that in order to go on in life, you had to wall off this memory, because it would be too painful to live with. Then finally you go into therapy and crack through the repression barrier and out comes this pristine memory. But there really is no credible scientific support for that notion.

AG: Is it the power of suggestion from a therapist that creates these "memories," then?
EL: Yes, a lot of the cases involve suggestive psychotherapy. But you don't absolutely need the therapy. You can get suggestion from the culture and the environment, like when somebody turns on Oprah and sees one of these repressed-memory therapists talking, then believes this has happened to them.