Elizabeth Loftus is the expert on bad memories. Not the sort of bad memories like your first boyfriend dumping you. The sort of bad memories created when a therapist convinces his client that, as a child, she was abused by her parents in some kind of Satanic ritual that never happened. The kind of bad memories that our brains conjure up on their own or cook up according to someone else’s instructions. The kind of memories that are mirages, coded transcripts of events that never occurred.
Loftus has been studying how our brains betray us for most of her distinguished career, looking at how “false memories” harm both those who harbor them and those who star in them. She has served as an expert witness or consultant in hundreds of legal cases, including the infamous McMartin Preschool molestation case. In her laboratory, she and her researchers have even experimentally implanted false memories into their subjects (harmless ones, such as being lost in a mall as a child) to see how easily fiction can become remembered reality.
Loftus’s life story begins and continues in Southern California. She was raised in Los Angeles, where tragedy struck early: her mother drowned in a pool when Elizabeth was just fourteen, and the family home burned down when she was sixteen.
“I actually ran into our burning house to grab the encyclopedia so I could complete my homework, but it was too dangerous to try to retrieve my diaries,” she writes in her soon-to-be-published autobiography. This unflappable devotion to her studies continued into her graduate years. She writes of her young marriage: “We married in my home in Los Angeles, and had a one-day honeymoon so that I could get back to Stanford to study for the comprehensive exams.” Her autobiography reads with the same humor and pluckiness you sense when she picks up the phone. At seventy-one, she hasn’t gotten any less determined.
Professor Loftus earned her PhD in psychology from Stanford and now teaches, speaks, writes, and serves as an expert witness at the intersection of memory, cognitive science, law, and crime. She remembers the first day she was finally allowed to testify on the drawbacks of eyewitness testimony with eerie precision; it was also the day her father died. For years, she says, prosecutors have been trying to use her exacting memory of the date against her (after all, isn’t she arguing that memory is faulty?), only to fall into silence when they learn why she remembers the date.
Today, Loftus is a distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine, and will soon publish an autobiography. I spoke to Professor Loftus via phone at her home in Southern California about her upcoming CSICon talk, the good and bad of eyewitness testimony, and just how accurate Scientology auditing can be.
Carrie Poppy: What an honor to talk to you! I was hoping that first I could just hear what your talk for CSICon is going to be.
Elizabeth Loftus: Well, I study memory distortion; how it is that people can remember things that didn’t happen. So I haven’t worked out the details exactly yet, but I’ll be talking about both some of my experiments in which we plant false information into the minds of people, make them believe that they saw things or experienced things that they didn’t experience, and just a little bit about what I’ve learned from these experiments. And then real-world examples of people’s memory distortion, or memories that have gone awry, and how it can lead to all kinds of problems for people.
Poppy: Right, and for people who don’t have that experience… who have never had so-called “repressed memory” or an acute experience like that, do you think that that lesson still resonates for all of us?
Loftus: Well, the problem of “false memories” is a lot bigger than just the sub-problem of people thinking that they have repressed memories or horrific abuse that happened decades earlier. False memories creep up whenever we get misinformation about something we’ve experienced. So it might be a recent robbery, or it might be a conversation with a friend or family member that gets misremembered. So, this thing plays itself out in much more than just the accusations of repressed memories.
Poppy: Right, that’s what I suspected. I’m thinking of not long ago, seconds after an argument with a friend, and one of us was saying, “You were shouting,” and the other was saying, “No, I wasn’t shouting!” It was seconds ago, and neither of you is really sure if you’re recalling it correctly.
Loftus: Yeah, and I did a TED talk—
Loftus: And it’s a kind of fifteen-minute version where I tried to pack in, in fifteen minutes, what I’ve been doing for the past many decades, and how it might apply in the real world. And so, this is going to be sort of an expanded version of that essence.
Poppy: I have seen it, actually. It’s a great talk. Now, in your work, I know that you often have to plant these sort-of “false memories” to see if you can successfully plant them in the laboratory. Do you have to, then, do some work to sort of dig those memories up?
Loftus: Well, in the experiments, of course, we debrief people. After the experiment is over, they go through a required and extensive debriefing where we apologize, tell them why we had to deceive them, try to make them feel normal, that their behavior was normal, so they don’t feel like a sap, and so on. And so far, in four decades of doing this kind of research, contaminating people’s memories, in experiments, involving maybe thirty or forty thousand people, we’ve never had an adverse effect.
Poppy: Oh, that’s great. So no one’s still walking around thinking they were lost in the mall as a child?
Loftus: Well, we can’t be positive of that because we don’t see them again. In fact, we’re not really allowed to see them again, unless somehow you were to build that into your protocol and get permission to re-contact them. After they go through the whole process, if we go back to them sometime later, can we see any evidence of sort-of lingering bit of this false memory? And, in a way, it’s a difficult thing for us to do because there’re so many people who would love to shut down this false memory work.
Poppy: And who’s that?
Loftus: Oh, the enemies. The people who think that it’s just helping pedophiles come up with an excuse, or you know, discounting a victim’s—an accuser’s claim. Because, you know, it’s certainly possible that guilty people will deny that they committed abuse and accuse the accuser of having false memories. So, you know, we have bunches of people who would love to shut down the enterprise, and so it’s a little scary to be going forward doing this study to find out, “Are there any lingering effects?” because I can see that if we do find any, any little glimpse of a lost-in-the-mall memory that’s still there, even after debriefing, the enemies will try to use it to shut down the whole enterprise.
Poppy: Sure. Because they’re looking for any hole in your system.
Loftus: Yeah, exactly. And I think that would be a tragedy, because this kind of work can help us appreciate a lot of the things that the skeptic community cares about. How is it people think that they saw UFOs? How is it that people can think they were abducted by aliens? Or, how is it that people see Jesus in toast?
Poppy: Since you mentioned that, are there things that the skeptic community isn’t doing, or isn’t covering, that you’d love to see them do?
Loftus: Well, you know, I’ve been a long-time fan of the Skeptical Inquirer, and they’ve got a lot of different topics to cover, but they have on occasion covered these memory issues, in various articles. And, in fact, in one of the articles that I wrote [for Skeptical Inquirer], we got sued, for an article called “Who Abused Jane Doe?” It led to about four and a half years of litigation.
Poppy: You mentioned that in your TED talk.
Loftus: Yeah. Well, that lawsuit arose out of an article that was published in Skeptical Inquirer, and [the magazine] became a co-defendant.
Poppy: How did that end up? Can you say?
Loftus: I can say, but it’s really complicated. This recovered-memory lady sued because she didn’t like the way the article portrayed her story. And, in the end, the only ones who won were the lawyers. [Both laugh.]
Poppy: I also found myself thinking a lot about Scientology while listening to your talk. I don’t know how familiar you are with it.
Loftus: Well, you know, I did read Lawrence Wright’s book [Going Clear] on Scientology. Amazing. I don’t know whether they’re planting attitudes or memories; there is a distinction. Social psychologists study attitude formation change. Memories are something sort of more personal. It’s like, what I did last week or last month or in my childhood.
Poppy: Right, well the reason I was thinking of it is because I went undercover in the Church of Scientology with my podcast cohost, Ross—
Loftus: Oh my God! How exciting!
Poppy: [Laughs.] Thank you!
Poppy: So, we were in there for about two months and we did a lot of “auditing.” And L. Ron Hubbard said that our cells—the cells of our bodies—remember everything that happened to us, even if our minds forget them. And so, you go through this process of recalling specific “memories” that he says our bodies are remembering for us. So they might be memories in utero, they might be memories of past lives, memories from being two or one or something one usually forgets.
Loftus: Oh, OK, well that’s just an invitation for creative fiction.
Poppy: Yeah, that’s my impression! And actually we would say the stories over and over. I would be made to tell the same story maybe for two hours, over and over and over. And of course, you become more and more confident about the details. At the beginning, you were saying, “Maybe her shirt was yellow?” At the end you’re saying, “She had a yellow shirt! It had a V-neck.” You’re convincing yourself.
Loftus: Yeah, well, it’s more fluent after you’ve rehearsed it so many times.
Poppy: True. [Laughs]
Loftus: That’s true with true memories, too. If you think of the ones that you tend to tell a lot. You know, the stories you tell when you’re in a new relationship.
Poppy: The stories you tell to your new prospective partner?
Loftus: Right, exactly. You know, by the Nth time, you’re pretty fluent. I mean, they may be true experiences, but that’s what happens with rehearsal. But how amazing! And you didn’t get sued, and you didn’t get rattle snakes put in your mailbox.
Poppy: [Laughs] Not yet. Keep your fingers crossed, though. So, let’s talk about eyewitness testimony. I was listening to your TED talk and I wrote down, “What is eyewitness testimony good for?” [Both laugh.] I was starting to feel so frustrated. I hear about all these cases that turn out to be completely mismanaged…
Loftus: Well, some eyewitness testimony is good.
Poppy: Phew, OK.
Loftus: You know, when I get a call from a lawyer, saying “I’ve got a case,” sometimes they’ll give me a fact pattern that I say, “you know, I’m just not sure I can help you.” So, [for example] they tell me, “OK, my guy had a conversation with somebody for a half hour, and then that somebody got robbed, and it was in daylight. And the next day, the victim goes into a pizza parlor, and sees [my] guy sitting there, calls up the police and says, ‘Hey, the guy’s here who robbed me yesterday.'” And I say, “You know, you’ve got broad daylight, you’ve got a long exposure time, you’ve got a short retention interval, you have no bad police procedure. You’ve got a same-race situation, not a cross-race [situation]. I don’t think there’s much anybody can do for you.” So, some eyewitness testimony is pretty reliable. It doesn’t have that accumulation of problematic factors. And so you have to look at each of these cases, and not just because someone says, “I’m positive,” and they’re very detailed, and they cry when they tell you the story. That doesn’t mean it really happened!
Poppy: Right, nor does it mean they’re lying. They might mean it, and be wrong.