Date: Feb 17, 2013 3:51 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: General Interest: How the Truth Gets Twisted

From Stanford Magazine [Stanford University
Alumni Association], November-December 2012. See
How the Truth Gets Twisted

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has devoted her
career to proving that memories don't just fade,
they can also change.

By Ann Marsh and Greta Lorge

Think of a treasured childhood memory. Recall the
images, sounds, smells, and hold them in your

Chances are, it didn't really happen quite that way-or even, possibly, at all.

Contrary to what most people believe, memory
doesn't work like a video camera with events
perfectly preserved forever. Inaccuracies creep
in: through imperfect perception, or biased
inferences or conflation with details from other

It's disconcerting to realize that what you think
you know about your own past may not be true. But
in a courtroom, getting a trifling fact wrong can
mean the difference for a defendant between
innocence or infamy, between freedom or prison-or

"Without independent corroboration, we can't
really know for sure if a memory is true or
false," says Elizabeth Loftus. "Usually it
doesn't really matter much, but in some
circumstances it's a matter of life or death."

Loftus would know. Perhaps no modern academic has
done more to advance our understanding of the
malleability and fallibility of memory. Over an
accolade-strewn 40-plus years of scholarship,
Loftus, MA '67, PhD '70, has demonstrated
repeatedly how unreliable memory is, going so far
as to show that full-grown adults can have entire
fake memories implanted in their psyches.

Because of her work, the phenomenon of so-called
repressed memories no longer carries the weight
it once did in our judicial system. And the
procedures for gathering eyewitness testimony
continue to be refined based on her findings
about how easily people's memories-like blood or
other physical evidence-can be tainted.

For this work Loftus, a distinguished professor
specializing in psychology and law at UC-Irvine,
has been feted and lauded. She is the
highest-ranking woman (No. 58) among the 100 most
influential psychologists of the 20th century, a
list that includes such figures as Freud, Skinner
and Piaget. In October she received the highest
honor that her university can bestow, the UCI

Yet, at the same time, she has been repeatedly
attacked and excoriated for daring to question
the fidelity of eyewitness accounts. "She is
occupying a world of high kudos coupled with
extremes of vitriol," says Valerie Jenness, dean
of UCI's School of Social Ecology, who was part
of the effort to recruit Loftus.

On one occasion, a stranger on an airplane, upon
learning who Loftus was, rolled up a newspaper
and swatted her with it. On another, a
prosecuting attorney walked up to her in the
courthouse hall, and with self-righteous fury
proclaimed, "You are nothing but a whore." Others
have classed her with Holocaust deniers for
making it more difficult for the testimony of
traumatized witnesses to prevail in court.

What about the victims of these crimes? Loftus
says she's often asked. Doesn't she care about
them? Her response: "Yes, I care; of course I
care. But as an expert witness I try to make sure
that two victims do not emerge from this crime:
the genuine crime victim and the innocently
accused person."

Elizabeth Fishman arrived on the Farm in 1966,
fresh from undergraduate studies in mathematics
and psychology at UCLA. The only woman in her
department's mathematical psychology track, she
aced her regular courses, but also passed the
time during Friday seminars hemming skirts and
planning cocktail recipes. In a secret poll, her
peers voted her the least likely to succeed in
the profession.

One classmate, Geoffrey Loftus, PhD '71,
remembers Beth Fishman as "glamorous, with finely
chiseled high cheekbones, long dark hair,
perfectly tailored business suits, trademark L.A.
sunglasses and a body to die for." (They married
in 1968.) Garrulous and friendly, her outwardly
easygoing manner belied a seriousness of purpose
and an already relentless drive. She suspects
both stemmed from a need to escape her own
painful memories.

The only daughter of Sidney, a doctor, and
Rebecca, a former librarian, Loftus grew up in
Bel Air, Calif. At age 6, she was molested by a
babysitter. She never repressed the memory, but
she put it out of her mind, not even telling her
parents. Then, in 1959, her mother, who suffered
from depression, drowned in a pool in what may
have been an accident or a suicide.

Two years later, a fire swept through her
neighborhood just north of Sunset Boulevard and
consumed nearly 500 homes, including her
family's. A LIFE magazine photographer captured
Loftus at 17, wearing a summer dress and
clutching a stuffed teddy bear as she watched the
conflagration. "I have the magazine to remind me
of the truth," she says, "so I don't have to
worry about distortions."

Loftus's academic interest in distortions of
memory would bloom years later at Stanford in a
social psychology course taught by Professor
Jonathan Freedman. During one class, she asked a
question about the role of memory in changing
attitudes. Noting her interest, Freedman pulled
her aside afterward and said he could use her
help on a research project. He wanted to know
exactly how the brain organizes, stores and
retrieves information from long-term memory.

Loftus had found her calling.

After graduation, Geoffrey Loftus landed a
faculty position at the University of Washington,
where he remains a professor of psychology.
Loftus turned down an assistant professorship at
Harvard to join him there a year later. Though
they divorced in 1991, the two remain close
friends (Loftus refers to him with great
affection as her "wasband") and have collaborated
on cases.

At UW, Elizabeth Loftus began to study the
reliability of eyewitness testimony-and would
later bring national attention to the issue.
Aside from a literal smoking gun, she says,
nothing carries more weight with a jury than
someone saying "I saw it with my own eyes." Of
the 250-plus wrongly convicted people who have
been exonerated on the basis of DNA
testing-people who spent an average of 13 years
in prison for crimes they didn't
commit-eyewitness misidentification was a factor
in more than three quarters of the cases. "People
embrace eyewitness testimony so uncritically,"
Loftus says, "because they believe that memory
can accurately and pristinely store events and
replay them for you later on."

She designed and ran experiments to see how
easily people's memories could be influenced just
by the way a question was worded. In one,
subjects were shown a film of a car accident
after which they were asked to answer yes or no
to questions about what they had seen. Simply
substituting the for a (as in, "Did you see the/a
broken headlight?") made subjects more likely to
affirm that they'd seen something that wasn't in
the film.

In a separate experiment she found that changing
the verb in the question "How fast were the cars
going when they hit each other?" affected
subjects' judgment of speed. Those who read
"smashed together" estimated the cars were going
5 to 10 mph faster than those who read "hit each
other." They were also more likely to report
seeing broken glass that was nonexistent in the

In a 1974 Psychology Today article about this
research, Loftus mentioned consulting for a
Seattle public defender on a case in which a
young woman had shot and killed her abusive
boyfriend, claiming self-defense. Her case hinged
on the exact amount of time between when the
woman grabbed the gun and when she fired the
first shot. The defendant and her sister, who was
also in the apartment at the time, said two
seconds; another witness, a neighbor, said five
minutes. Had a full five minutes elapsed, that
would support the prosecution's accusation of
premeditated murder.

"One thing you have to realize is many, many
people overestimate the duration of events,"
Loftus told the public defender. "So you have to
take that time estimate with a grain of salt."

The jury found the woman innocent of murder, and
the article about the case prompted other lawyers
to seek out Loftus's expertise. A few months
later, she received a letter from an attorney in
Utah asking her to consult on "one of the more
interesting cases regarding eyewitness
identification." The accused, a 28-year-old law
student, had been charged in the attempted
abduction of a young women that had occurred nine
months earlier. There was no physical evidence,
according to the lawyer, and the victim was the
sole eyewitness. He included a transcript of her
statement, in which he had highlighted a number
of inconsistencies. Loftus agreed to testify as
an expert witness in the case.

The defendant's name? Ted Bundy. It was her fourth case.

Despite Loftus's testimony, Bundy was convicted.
Given the facts of the case, she believed at the
time that he might have been innocent. It was
only months later, after a series of articles
laid out striking new evidence that Bundy was
indeed guilty, not just of that one crime, but of
many, many others, that she realized he was a

Loftus went on to testify as an expert witness or
serve as a consultant on the fallibility of
memory and eyewitness testimony in hundreds of
trials including those of the Hillside Strangler,
the McMartin preschool abuse case, the officers
accused of beating Rodney King, the Menendez
brothers, the Oklahoma City bombing case and a
Bosnian war crimes tribunal at the Hague.

Loftus has written eloquently and poignantly
about the internal conflict working on these
cases presents. Much as it horrifies her that her
testimony may help someone guilty of an
unspeakable crime go free, she says, "I ask only
that we think about the plight of those innocent
people accused of crimes they did not commit. . .
. I believe the rights of these innocent people
are worth fighting for." People like Howard Haupt.

In Witness for the Defense, one of her 22 books,
she devotes a chapter to Haupt, who became the
prime suspect in the 1987 kidnapping and murder
of a 7-year-old boy at a Las Vegas hotel. On the
morning of November 27, a man had grabbed the boy
out of an arcade at a hotel where Haupt was
staying at the time. Several adult eyewitnesses
gave conflicting descriptions to the police of
the man they said they'd seen with the boy. The
composite the police ended up with was a white
male, age 35 to 40, 5-foot-7 to 6 feet tall, 160
to 180 pounds with sandy to medium brown hair and
glasses. However, an 11-year-old girl who had
been in the arcade and spoke briefly with the man
described him as tall with a muscular build, dark
brown hair and two scars or birthmarks on his

Haupt, 37, was 6 feet tall, 145 pounds, with
thinning blond hair and glasses. A couple of
weeks after the boy vanished, but before the body
was found, he received a letter from the Las
Vegas police asking him to consent to be
photographed and fingerprinted in connection with
the case. The letter was worded to appear as if
it had been sent to anyone who had been a hotel
guest at the time. But the police already
believed they had their man in Haupt.

A transcript of an interview with one eyewitness
revealed that the officer repeatedly directed the
witness's attention back to Haupt's mug shot,
even after the witness passed him over. Loftus's
testimony in the case persuaded several jurors
that through leading questions of this kind, the
police had influenced eyewitnesses' memories,
causing them over the course of repeated
inquiries to become convinced of Haupt's guilt.
Several jurors said later that the evidence she
presented played a key role in their decision to
find him innocent. Haupt is a free man today.

Some of the most contentious cases Loftus has
been involved in have to do with revelations of
childhood traumas purportedly recovered through
therapeutic techniques such as hypnosis and
guided imagery that were in vogue in the '80s and
'90s. The theory went that intense stress and
emotion could cause the mind to bury memories
deep in the subconscious, where they remained
dormant, sometimes for decades.

In one such case, a clinical psychologist had
filmed a girl, whom he called Jane Doe, at age 6,
speaking about sexual abuse suffered at the hands
of her mother, then again at age 17, after she
had forgotten and supposedly recovered the
memory. The video made the rounds at scientific
conferences and eventually the case was being
used in trials as new evidence that the
phenomenon of repressed memory was real.

Loftus was dubious. She had conducted several
versions of an experiment that demonstrated the
ease with which entire, rich memories of events
that never occurred could be implanted in
someone's mind. With the help of subjects' close
relatives, she and her research team constructed
convincing, but fictitious, scenarios-such as
getting lost in a shopping mall as a child or
shaking hands with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland (an
impossibility given that Bugs is a Warner
Brothers character). They then asked subjects
whether they recalled having experienced the
events and encouraged them to elaborate on any
additional details they remembered. Approximately
20 percent of the subjects accepted the false
memories as their own; after being debriefed, a
few refused to believe that the events had never
happened to them.

Even Loftus herself was not immune to the
introduction of false memories. When she was 44,
her 90-year-old uncle told her she was the one
who had found her mother's body floating in the
pool all those years ago. Loftus protested that
no, it had been her aunt. But her uncle was

"My God, maybe I have a repressed memory, after
all," Loftus remembers thinking. "Maybe that's
why I work so hard. Maybe that's why I'm so
emotional." This train of thought led her to
remember the details of that day in a new light:
her mother's body in a nightgown and a fireman
slipping an oxygen mask over Loftus's own
panicked face. "I was trying to make sense of
[the new information] and pretty soon I was
picturing it."

Later the uncle decided he was wrong and other
relatives confirmed that, in fact, it had been
Loftus's aunt who found the body.

"You can whip yourself into a memory," she says, reflecting on the incident.

Loftus set out to get to the truth about Jane
Doe. She found the girl's biological mother and
her former stepmother. After these interviews,
and looking into the methods the psychologist had
used to elicit Jane's recollections, she felt
convinced that the alleged abuse had not taken
place. Loftus planned to publish an exposé on the
case, hoping to keep repressed memory from being
used against anyone in court.

But Jane complained to the University of
Washington, claiming Loftus had invaded her
privacy. The university, her home for 29 years,
seized Loftus's research files, put her under a
gag order and launched a lengthy investigation.
Though she was ultimately cleared of any
wrongdoing (and eventually published her
investigation), Loftus never felt that the
university apologized sufficiently. So when UCI
recruited her in 2002, she made the move south.

Roger Wolfson first encountered Loftus's research
when he was working for Sen. John Kerry on what
would become the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act.
At the time, during the heyday of repressed
memory cases, there was a big push to change the
statutes of limitations on many types of crimes
from the date of commission to the date a victim
"recovered" a memory.

"I was a good liberal," says Wolfson, whose
background is in law. "My impression was of
course you should do that, that makes perfect
sense. Then I found myself reading some of
[Loftus's] work. . . . I was very affected by it."

Fast-forward 18 years. Wolfson, now a successful
television writer with credits including The
Closer, Law and Order: SVU and Saving Grace, was
contacted by an agent at Creative Artists Agency.
The agent had seen Loftus on an episode of 60
Minutes in which she'd demonstrated the power of
misinformation in eyewitness identification on
reporter Lesley Stahl. He had gotten the idea for
a police procedural show involving a character
who was an expert on memory, and he wanted
Wolfson to write it.

"The second he mentioned Dr. Loftus . . . I could
immediately envision the show," Wolfson says. He
wrote a pilot in which a University of Washington
psychologist consults on cases for the Seattle
police, using her knowledge of how memory works
to help them solve crimes.

Because it was to be a network show, Wolfson made
the character based on Loftus a tad younger. But
he kept a lot of the biographical details:
Stephanie Glisson is Jewish, haunted by a
devastating fire in her past, and romantically
involved with a fellow UW professor.

Loftus had input on the script. There were some
little tensions, she says. "Generally, I'm
brought into criminal cases on the side of the
defense. [But] somebody decided that someone who
goes around getting people off wouldn't go over
well with the American public." At one point,
Wolfson sent her a version where Glisson was into
astrology. "I said, 'Roger, there can be no way
that she is into astrology.' I said, 'How about
this? She reads the astrology columns [because]
she knows others do and wants to know what they
were thinking.' "

Wolfson also gave Glisson some contraptions that
Loftus never had, such as an immersive memory
chamber that allows her to stimulate an
eyewitness's senses to trigger recall. (Though
nothing like that currently exists, Loftus says
in theory it would work.) Ultimately, though, the
network went with another show that had a similar
premise. Wolfson was "profoundly disappointed"
when the project didn't move forward, but says
that he's committed to finding it a home
elsewhere, possibly on cable.

"Dr. Loftus really is one of the greatest stories
in the field that hasn't fully been told," he
says. "I consider her to be one of the bravest
and most principled and most important not only
psychologists, but social activists, of our time."

In recent years, Loftus has spent less time
crisscrossing the country for court appearances
and has turned more of her research focus to the
effect of memory on attitudes and behavior. What
are the consequences of having a false memory?
How does it change the way you think and act?
It's a topic that has interested her for a long
time-in a way, since that first social psychology
course with Professor Freedman at Stanford.

In the early '00s, Loftus began investigating
whether implanting negative memories involving
particular foods-such as hard-boiled eggs or dill
pickles-in people who were otherwise agnostic,
would cause them to avoid those foods in the

In a program that aired on PBS, Loftus
demonstrates the technique on Alan Alda,
attempting to persuade the actor that he had
become ill after eating hard-boiled eggs as a
child. Later, she offers Alda hard-boiled eggs at
a picnic; he initially refuses them before taking
an uncomfortable bite of one at the end.

That led Loftus to explore whether the
malleability of human memory could be used to
induce false-but salutary-memories. What if an
overweight person was led to believe that he had
once fallen ill after eating fattening foods? Or,
conversely, what if he was given positive
memories associated with healthy foods? Loftus
showed that creating false memory taste aversion
is possible for some foods, such as strawberry
ice cream, but not necessarily others-chocolate
chip cookies, for example-and that only about 40
percent of people are susceptible. In a separate
experiment, people who adopted a memory of
enjoying asparagus the first time they tried it
were subsequently more likely to request it when
presented a menu of lunch options.

"It does raise the possibility that we could use
the implantation of false beliefs and memories to
change people's lives and allow them to live
healthier lives," say Loftus, who is in the
process of publishing studies that demonstrate
the efficacy of the technique in reducing alcohol
consumption. Of course, a therapist could not
ethically manipulate a patient's memory-even for
his or her own good-but, Loftus has pointed out,
there's nothing to stop the parent of a child at
risk for obesity and related diseases from doing

That mere suggestion prompted outcry from critics
that she was advocating that parents lie to their
children. Says Loftus: "What would you rather
have, a kid with all the problems of
obesity-diabetes, shortened lifespan-or maybe a
bit of a false memory? I know what I would choose
for a kid of mine."

Of course, Loftus is not like the rest of us.
Most of us can't help but cling to the idea that
our most cherished memories are immutable because
they form the basis of our identities. She is
perhaps more open to inserting therapeutic
falsehoods into her own or other peoples'
memories because she knows how much fantasy
dwells there already. Perhaps one day people will
come to regard their recollections less as
artifacts and more as tools to enhance their
futures. Should Loftus's views about this
controversial subject gain currency, it will give
new meaning to the expression "making memories."
Ann Marsh, '88, is a writer living in Pasadena, Calif.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244