Elizabeth Loftus: Falsifying memories

Franklin was convicted nevertheless, and spent 5 years in jail, before doubts over the validity of his daughter’s testimony were raised, and his conviction was overturned. Meanwhile, dozens of other people made similar claims, and Loftus became embroiled in an argument between therapists who believed that such claims should be believed, and the psychologists, who said that such memories are likely to be false. The argument continued throughout the 1990s, fuelled by high profile cases such as that of the actress Roseanne Barr, and by people who claimed that their abusers had been set free because of Loftus’ testimony.
Loftus started her career investigating semantic memory – how word meanings are stored in the brain – and somewhat ironically, it is the meaning of words that seems to lie at the heart of the matter. While there may be no evidence that memories can be repressed, in the Freudian sense, only to be recovered many years later, there are other ways in which memories of traumatic events can be buried for long periods of time.
Developmental psychologist Steve Ceci of Cornell University, explains one of them, a process known as motivated forgetting: “Think of some embarrassing event when you were a teenager,” he says. “You’re not going to dwell on it, but you can recollect it if someone reminds you. Likewise, people can have horrible experiences and not think about them for decades, but are capable of retrieving them when questioned.” Another is a rare and poorly understood psychological condition called dissociative amnesia.
It is therefore perfectly plausible that memories of childhood sexual abuse could be buried for years and then recalled, and that motivated forgetting, dissociative amnesia, or some other mechanism could account for some of the allegations in cases that Loftus has testified in. But because of the way in which the entire debate has been framed around the issue of “repression” and “recovery,” these nuances have been largely ignored.
Loftus concedes that the subject is “a little slippery,” and that, at least in principle, her testimonies in such cases could have resulted in real perpetrators of child abuse getting away with their crimes. And she agrees that the brain is a complex organ whose workings are still largely mysterious, and that we may at some point in the future discover other mechanisms by which traumatic memories can be recalled after being hidden from consciousness for many years. “Until that time,” she says, “we should not be locking people up based on a clumsy theory that is not supported by scientific evidence.”
Some feminists are also concerned that Loftus’ involvement in these cases has altered the way in which the mass media and general public view women who make such claims. They argue that the debate has shifted the focus away from viewing those who make the claims as victims, and onto the doubts over recovered memories. The ultimate effect, they say, is to undermine the credibility of all women who make such allegations. (These arguments are summarised in chapter one of the book, Relational Remembering, by the late feminist philosopher Susan Campbell.)
Loftus’ own work in this area began with the “Lost in the mall” study, which was published in 1996. This showed that about one fifth of study participants could be led to believe that they had experienced an event that never happened, and convinced her that therapists could inadvertently implant false memories of childhood sexual abuse in their patients’ minds. Since then, Loftus has focused her work on the possibility of implanting false memories to make people eat more healthily, or to treat alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although none of this has been tested outside of controlled laboratory conditions yet, Loftus believes it has potential, and even argues that under some circumstances it may be beneficial to force people to undergo treatments to have false memories implanted: “We have all these soldiers coming back with bad experiences,” she says, “and this is not only bad for them but also expensive for society. Here’s a situation where potentially intervening with memories might be something we would choose to do.” Ethicists worry that tinkering with something as complex as memory could have unforeseen consequences and, unsurprisingly, the idea of doing so coercively ruffles their feathers.
Despite these controversies, nobody doubts the impact Loftus has had. In 2002, she was ranked 58th in the Review of General Psychology’s list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century, alongside greats such as William James and Donald Hebb, and has been showered with countless honorary degrees, accolades and awards, the latest of which – the American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement – she received earlier this month. “As a scientist in a field that doesn’t have a Nobel prize,” she says, “I couldn’t really ask for anything more.”

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