How certain are you that your memories are real? That question drives the research of Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology and law at University of California, Irvine.
Loftus has devoted her career to the study of memory: How it’s formed, how it’s stored, how it can be altered—and how it can be fabricated. And her findings might surprise anyone who’s convinced that their memories are infallible.
After receiving her Ph.D., Loftus was awarded a grant from the Department of Transportation to study car accidents. Loftus was interested in eyewitness accounts of such incidents, which often play a major role in the insurance claims process, as many of us are unlucky enough to learn at some point.
After showing volunteers videos of crashes, Loftus asked several follow-up questions and quickly learned that the phrasing of the question influenced the answer. If Loftus asked how fast the cars were going when they “hit” each other, volunteers estimated a slower speed than when they were asked how fast the cars were going when they “smashed” into each other. Slower by about 7 miles an hour. Car “hit”? No big deal. Car “smash”? Crisis.
Even more intriguingly, Loftus discovered that she could modify memories with startling ease. After showing a film of a crash, Loftus asked some volunteers if they “saw a broken headlight” and others if they “saw the broken headlight.” Those who got the latter question were twice as likely to say yes – though, in fact, the film showed no broken headlights.
Loftus was fascinated, and she soon turned her attention to criminal trials. Suspicious of the accuracy of eyewitness identifications, Loftus conducted an experiment in which volunteers looked at photographs of six faces while listening to a story of a crime.
One face was identified as the criminal, five as innocents. Three days later, Loftus showed the volunteers four photographs: one of an innocent character from the crime story, and three of new people. Sixty percent of volunteers identified the innocent character as the perpetrator from the story. They recognized a familiar face but muddled their associations with it.
Armed with these studies, Loftus began testifying in trial after trial, earning popularity in the criminal defense world due to her ability to diminish a jury’s faith in eyewitness testimony. Over the course of 35 years, Loftus has consulted or testified hundreds of times, in trials as high profile as those of Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson.
One study in particular bolstered Loftus’ belief that much memory is malleable. In a now-famous experiment, Loftus told a volunteer that she had spoken with his mother and learned four things that happened to him as a 6-year-old.
She then ran through three real memories and one fake one. The volunteer sometimes claimed to remember the fake memory, which involved getting lost in a shopping mall then getting rescued by an elderly stranger. (Planting a more traumatic memory would be even more illuminating for psychologists, but researchers try to avoid permanently scarring their volunteers.)