The Memory Doctor
The mall experiment had obvious flaws. It involved only 24 people. Getting lost was different from being sexually abused. And maybe the six people who bought the story really had gotten lost in a mall, even if their parents or siblings didn't remember it. So Loftus ran bolder experiments with more subjects, more trauma, and greater implausibility. She convinced people that they had nearly choked, had caught their parents having sex, or had seen a wounded animal after a bombing. Other researchers planted memories of nearly drowning, being hospitalized overnight, and being attacked by an animal. In one study, Loftus and her collaborators persuaded 18 percent of people that they had probably witnessed demonic possession.
Loftus speaking at the Center for Inquiry's World Congress, April 2009
Critics protested that Loftus still hadn't proved the memories were fake. So she raised the ante. She persuaded 16 percent of a study population that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. In a follow-up experiment, researchers sold the same memory to 36 percent of subjects. This was impossible, since Bugs belonged to Warner Bros., not Disney. When critics complained that the Bugs memory wasn't abusive, Loftus obliged them again. Her team convinced 30 percent of another group of subjects that on a visit to Disneyland, a drug-addled Pluto character had licked their ears.
With each escalation and success, Loftus turned the tide of the cultural and legal war over repressed memories. Her experiments became potent evidence in court. Psychologists, judges, and initially credulous news organizations became skeptical of repressed memories. Many women retracted allegations of abuse. Lawsuits and regulators began to punish reckless therapists. The frenzy subsided.
For her courage in confronting this menace, Loftus was ostracized by clinical psychologists, denounced as an enemy of women, and accused of molesting her own children, though she had none. Armed guards accompanied her at lectures. And when she dared to reinvestigate a particularly compelling allegation of sexual abuse—the "Jane Doe" case—her university seized her files and barred her from publishing or discussing her findings. She persisted in the face of these ordeals because she refused to live in a world of lies.
That was the story she told about herself in books and interviews. And it was the truth. But not the whole truth.
Memory and Truth: The Mystery of Jane Doe
In the spring of 1997, an allegation of child sexual abuse shook up the debate over repressed memory. For several years, recollections of child abuse, ostensibly "recovered" in therapy, had been under attack in courtrooms and scientific journals. According to skeptics, these memories weren't real; they were unwitting products of suggestion and imagination. But this case was different. The alleged victim, known only as Jane Doe, had described the abuse on videotape at age 6 and again at age 17. In the second video, she appeared to recover the original memory. And this time, the memory couldn't be dismissed as a recent fabrication. Its corroboration was right there on the original tape.
Believers in repressed memory finally had their smoking gun. Expert witnesses began to present the case in court, citing it as proof that such memories were real. The tapes impressed many skeptics. But they didn't convince Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist who had led the campaign to discredit repressed memory. She refused to believe that two stories told by the same witness could corroborate each other. Loftus suspected that Jane Doe, like other accusers, was under the spell of a false memory. But the memory hadn't been planted in Jane the teenager. It had been planted in Jane the child.
Loftus understood that the past could be opaque. When she was 14, her own mother had drowned, either by accident or suicide. Loftus would never know which, and she had learned to accept that. As an expert witness in dozens of trials, she had made her peace with mystery. To acquit a defendant, reasonable doubt was enough.
But this mystery had to be solved. The power of the videotapes and the use of Jane's story in other court cases demanded an answer. What lay behind the tapes? What had really happened to this little girl? Loftus had to know. She had to leave her laboratory and become a detective.
Jane had accused her mother of abusing her. From the tapes, Loftus ascertained Jane's home county. She hired a private investigator to get records from the local courthouse. Using databases, obituaries, and Social Security death records, Loftus and a colleague, Melvin Guyer, identified Jane's father. They scoured files from the custody fight between Jane's parents. They found a psychological evaluation and a Child Protective Services report that cast doubt on Jane's story. They interviewed local doctors and nurses to debunk the medical evidence against Jane's mother.
Loftus interviewed Jane's mother at her home. She spent four hours with Jane's foster mother. Finally, she tracked down Jane's stepmother. She learned that Jane's brother, who was alleged to have witnessed the abuse, had denied it. She discovered that Jane's mother had cooked on a gas stove, which couldn't have caused the coil-shaped burns Jane had attributed to her.
Gradually, Loftus and Guyer pieced together a theory. The psychologist who evaluated Jane as a child had questioned whether the abuses were real or had been "communicated" to her. "She has told her story numerous times to a number of different people and she now sounds mechanical," his report noted. This matched a comment from Jane's stepmother. "That's how we finally got her—the sexual angle," the stepmother told Loftus, referring to the custody fight she and Jane's father had waged against Jane's mother. "We were building a case against this woman. We were going for broke."
From legal records, Loftus determined that the stepmother was the first person to whom Jane had reported her abuse. With that, the puzzle pieces fell into place. Loftus and Guyer surmised that Jane's accusations "may have originated in the mind of StepMom and were communicated to Jane" prior to her first taped interview. Jane's memory at age 17 was an honest retrieval of her original story. But the story was false.
Before Loftus could publish her report, Jane Doe struck back. She told Loftus' employer, the University of Washington, that Loftus had violated her privacy. The university seized Loftus' files and barred her from publishing or discussing her findings. It took Loftus two years to win a letter of exoneration and another six years to get rid of Jane's subsequent lawsuit, which went all the way to the California Supreme Court. By then, Loftus, furious with the University of Washington, had moved to the University of California at Irvine. In their report on Jane Doe, published in the Skeptical Inquirer in 2002, Loftus and Guyer affirmed their duty to uncover "the whole truth" and presented the results of their investigation.
Part V: Truth or Consequences?
By the turn of the century, Elizabeth Loftus was the world's most influential debunker of false memories. She had rescued defendants from mistaken eyewitness testimony and from the pedophile witch hunt of the repressed-memory movement. But two dangers lurked at the core of her work. She was learning more and more about how to manipulate beliefs. And her allegiance to truth was negotiable.
In 1989, when the Chinese government tried to alter memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Loftus used her knowledge of brainwashing to expose the deception. (For more on this episode and her writings on politics, see George Orwell's 1989.) In the case of Jane Doe, an alleged victim of child abuse, Loftus risked her career to find out what had really happened. And in her books about witness testimony and repressed memory, she drew her moral power from truth. She wrote with dismay of the "horrifying idea that our memories can be changed, inextricably altered, and that what we think we know, what we believe with all our hearts, is not necessarily the truth." Quoting a fellow psychologist, she warned readers not "to accept a false reality as truth, for that is the very essence of madness." Memory was truth's guardian, and Loftus was memory's guardian.
But this picture, too, was part myth. Alongside the official story of her career, there was a shadow story. Loftus never believed in the absolute sanctity of truth or memory. She believed that memory, through wishful thinking, constantly modified itself. People remembered themselves as having given more to charity than they really had. They mentally airbrushed their behavior in marriages and relationships. They minimized what they had lost and embellished what they had chosen.
Like the clipped-on portions of Loftus' adolescent diary, memories could be conveniently adjusted. And this rewriting of history was no perversion. It seemed to Loftus such a common tendency that it must be a product of evolution. In short, it was natural. Its function, she surmised, was to promote happiness or, at least, to avoid depression. And this theory matched her reflections about her own life and the lives of her friends: Often, happiness was more important than truth.
In court, Loftus never consciously faced this question. There, she believed, truth and happiness overlapped. False memories on the witness stand sent innocent people to jail, and this terrible consequence was unacceptable. But her faith in the rightness of her cause sometimes numbed her to the manipulative games defense lawyers played. In fact, Loftus was very good at these games. And, for a while, she played them. She left truth to fend for itself.
The most important game was jury selection. As attorneys became familiar with Loftus' expertise in psychology, they recruited her to be a jury consultant. Her job was to present the anticipated prosecution and defense arguments, in summary form, to several hundred people. Each respondent had to render a verdict. It was like political polling, but with a twist: Using the respondents' demographic data—age, occupation, sex, race, income—the consultant would compute which kinds of jurors the defense should seek or exclude. On a few occasions in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Loftus did such work. She didn't love it, but she didn't refuse it, either.
In articles for legal journals, she deployed her expertise in juror psychology and her knowledge of how to alter beliefs. She counseled attorneys on jury selection and on coaching economists as expert witnesses to win bigger damage awards. In one article, she and a co-author suggested that lawyers might wish to "eliminate better-educated jurors who could serve as leaders in arguments against their clients."
Loftus wasn't a mercenary. She was just good at calculating the angles, and she didn't think anything terrible was at stake. The same was true of her work on advertising. In 1976, the Federal Trade Commission asked her to assess the power of ads to mislead consumers. She astutely dissected marketers' tactics, but she was equally capable of teaching them. A few years after the FTC job, an ad agency hired her to figure out how to get people to remember its client's product. There was nothing sneaky about the assignment. It was just a chance to use her talents and enjoy being wined and dined.
Loftus didn't care about ad consulting, so she didn't pursue it. But by the mid-1990s, her work on memory distortion was well-known, and others could see its business value. In 1996, she was approached by Kathryn Braun, a doctoral student in marketing. Starting in 1997, they collaborated on several articles about advertising's power to alter memories. They called this power insidious, warned that people should be educated about it, and stipulated that they didn't support intentional editing of consumers' pasts. But they also highlighted the "managerial opportunities" it presented.
Braun, Loftus, and their co-authors always disavowed deception. Yet they spelled out, for readers of Psychology & Marketing and the Journal of Advertising, exactly how their findings could be exploited. They analyzed which recollections were "better suited for memory revision": childhood memories in the case of Disney, college memories in the case of beer. They noted that since memory was fallible and malleable, advertisers could win back consumers who thought they'd had bad experiences with their products. From the advertiser's standpoint, they wrote, "you want the consumer to be involved enough that they process the false information" but "not so involved that … they notice the discrepancy between the advertising information and their own experience."
To illustrate the technique, Loftus and Braun drew up fake "Remember the Magic" print ads for Disney theme parks. The ads reminded readers of the parks' sights and sounds: Cinderella's castle, Space Mountain, meeting Mickey Mouse.
The researchers showed these ads to a group of college students, while other students saw a non-Disney ad instead. To ensure that the Disney ads wouldn't trigger true memories of shaking Mickey's hand, the researchers screened out students who reported up front that they had met a TV character at a theme park.
Of the students who were shown an ad featuring happy memories of meeting Mickey, 90 percent later reported increased confidence that this event had happened or might have happened to them. That was twice the percentage who reported such an increase in the control group. And compared with the control group, those who saw the Disney ad were significantly more likely to say that they fondly remembered visiting the park and that such visits had been central to their childhoods. Many who saw a different version featuring Bugs Bunny were convinced that they had met him at Disneyland, even though this was impossible, since he was a Warner Bros. character. (See Part 4.)
In a subsequent article for the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, Loftus, Braun, and Braun's husband (Braun, having added her husband's surname, was now Kathryn Braun-LaTour) demonstrated "how to employ reconstructed memory to help restore a brand damaged by a crisis." Using similar mock ads, they planted recollections of happy childhood visits to Wendy's: playing on the slide, jumping in the ball pit, swinging on the swing sets. These recollections couldn't be true, since Wendy's had never had such equipment. Compared with subjects who were shown an ad offering a free Frosty, those who were shown the happy-childhood ads reported that they had visited and enjoyed Wendy's more as children, including the fictional Wendy's Playland. The authors concluded that "it is better to engage consumers emotionally after a crisis situation than to appeal to their rational side."
If Loftus didn't condone memory tampering, why was she explaining how to do it? In part, she was just doing as she had been trained. You had to get published, and publishers wanted value for their readers. When you wrote for therapy journals, you offered advice to therapists. When you wrote for legal journals, you offered advice to lawyers. When you wrote for advertising journals, you offered advice to advertisers. That was how the game was played.
But Loftus was more than a trainee. She was a trainer. She had learned how to make people remember and believe things, and this knowledge was as useful to advertisers as it was to lawyers. Her only qualm about manipulation was that people might be harmed. And advertising didn't strike her as terribly harmful. Most advertisers, she and her colleagues noted, were "unlikely to try to plant a negative memory, as has been the issue with false memories of childhood abuse."
That was why Loftus treated advertisers more kindly than she treated recovered-memory therapists. The therapists' motives might be better, but the memories they planted were worse. Welfare, not honesty, was her god.
But in that case, what if you could help people by deceiving them?
In her curious mind, the idea was already brewing.
Memory and Politics: Orwell's 1989
In June 1989, the Chinese army crushed a protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square with tanks and live ammunition, killing hundreds of people. Then the government washed out the massacre with propaganda. It told its citizens that the dissidents had assaulted the soldiers.
Watching these events from the safety of the United States, Elizabeth Loftus recognized the regime's strategy. It resembled the memory-distortion techniques she had researched as an experimental psychologist. Time was dissolving authentic memories of the uprising, and the regime was substituting its version by inducing people to repeat it in public seminars. "The Chinese government strategy of 'political reeducation' takes advantage of these features known to coerce memory modification," she wrote:
Each class member makes a public pledge of allegiance to the "lie." All the right psychological high-tech ingredients are in place for the lie to become the truth, reason enough for us to view the future of memories of Tiananmen square with foreboding pessimism. If handled skillfully, the power of misinformation is so strong and controllable that a colleague and I recently postulated a not-too-distant "brave new world" in which misinformation researchers would be able to proclaim, "Give us a dozen healthy memories, and our own specified world to handle them in, and we'll guarantee to take any memory at random and train it to become any type of memory that we may select …"
Actually, this unfolding dystopia wasn't Brave New World. It was 1984, George Orwell's novel about a totalitarian state controlling its population through memory revision. Loftus saw this threat becoming real. Manipulations of memory were "assaults on its very essence," she wrote. "We should worry about whose memory is next. Memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing."
In later years, Loftus returned to this theme. She criticized rosy history textbooks, political spin rooms, and photographic tampering by authoritarian regimes. "Are these simply memory distortion techniques applied on a grander scale?" she asked.
Then photo tampering hit home. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times published an Iraq-war photo that had been doctored for aesthetics. A year later, London's Daily Mirror ran fake pictures of British troops torturing an Iraqi prisoner. Another bogus photo, altered to pair John Kerry with Jane Fonda at an anti-Vietnam War rally, snookered American pundits and poisoned Kerry's public image as he emerged from the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries.
Intrigued by these fabrications, Loftus and two colleagues conducted an experiment to test whether doctored photos could modify political memories. They selected two famous protests: Tiananmen Square and a peace rally in Rome. To a photo of the Rome rally, they added menacing protesters and police in riot gear. To an iconic image from the Beijing uprising—a lone man blocking a column of tanks—they added throngs of people lining the route.
The revisions worked. Compared with subjects who saw the real photo of Tiananmen, those who saw the doctored photo were twice as likely to estimate that more than 500,000 people had participated. And compared with subjects who saw the real photo from Rome, those who saw the doctored photo were four times as likely to say that people had died in the protest. Loftus expressed alarm at the spread of photo manipulation, calling it "a form of human engineering that could be applied to us against our knowledge and against our wishes." "We have to figure how we can regulate this," she warned.
Last week, Slate tested the same techniques on political memories in the United States. We altered four images, took a fifth out of context, and mixed these five fake scenes (which involved Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama), with three real ones. Half of our readers who participated in the experiment remembered the fabricated episodes as true, and when they were asked to guess which of the four incidents they had seen was fake, 37 percent picked the wrong one. The dangers of 1989 persist in 2010.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.