Why Our Memories Are Little More Than Stories We Tell Ourselves

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Making Memories, One Lie at a Time

Most of us believe our memories are infallible, but many come directly from our imagination. Read how one psychologist has learned to plant false memories—sometimes for our own good.

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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.

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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.)

Even odder, the volunteer would usually be happy to elaborate on this implanted memory. His panic, his confusion, his relief; it was all there, hidden away in his memory. Except that it wasn’t—it was all in his imagination. With just a small bit of coaxing, Loftus could insert this memory even into the most skeptical minds.

“If they say they don’t remember, I’ll just ask them to try to imagine it,” says Loftus. “That starts them down the road. They’ll begin to ‘uncover’ more details, and pretty soon they’ll start believing in the story themselves.”

The real world implications for this study, which Loftus successfully repeated numerous times, are immediately obvious.

Eyewitness testimony to any crime starts to seem rather dubious – after all, who’s to say a particularly persuasive police officer or trial lawyer hasn’t manipulated or even implanted a key memory? Loftus' studies make the idea of repressed "uncovered memories"  – usually of childhood abuse – that suddenly surge to light in adulthood especially suspect.

After spending much of her career studying dark memories, Loftus began to wonder whether there might be a more positive and encouraging application of her work.

Through her experiments, she had already proved that false memories occur organically. What if she could plant memories herself, she wondered—and use them to help people?

To test this prospect, Loftus informed volunteers that they had experienced an aversive reaction to ice cream in the past by planting a memory of ice cream-related nausea. It worked: Forty percent of volunteers claimed to remember the reaction—and most of them noted that they’d avoid ice cream in the future. By planting false beliefs, Loftus had created healthy behavior, a revelatory finding with profound implications for behavioral psychology.

Of course, Loftus’ work isn’t on the level of the movie Inception. But it isn’t that far away, either.

Her research proves that memories are little more than stories we tell ourselves. Like many stories, some might be based on truth. But others might be illusions, unmoored from reality, camouflaged in details that even the keenest mind can’t separate from fiction.

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