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 mind.
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 events.
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 worse.
"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 Medal.
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
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 film.
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
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 monster.
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 forehead.
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
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
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 adamant.
"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 exposť on the
case, hoping to keep repressed memory from being used against anyone
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
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
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
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 future.
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 so.
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
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