False Memory: Elizabeth Loftus and the Fiction of Memory

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False Memory Elizabeth LoftusElizabeth Loftus is an American cognitive psychologist who studies memory. However, she is quick to point out:

I don’t study when people forget. I study the opposite: when they remember, when they remember things that didn’t happen or remember things that were different from the way they really were. I study false memories.

False memories are essentially self-delusional thoughts about the past. They are not recollections of what happened, but rather a distorted fabrication and a creation of “memories” not based on facts. Through a series of studies, Loftus proved that memory is a lot more fragile and unreliable that we tend to think.

In one of her studies, she showed a simulated car accident scene to two groups of people. Loftus asked the first group how fast the cars were going when the “hit” each other, and the second group how fast the cars were going when they “smashed” each other. On average, the second group indicated higher numbers. Moreover, when asked if a window was broken in the accident, 32% of the “smash” group of people said yes,  and only 14% from the “hit” group. Since no glass had been broken, the “smash” group was simply making up the memory of the broken glass based on assumptions.

And so what these studies are showing is that when you feed people misinformation about some experience that they may have had, you can distort or contaminate or change their memory.

Well out there in the real world, misinformation is everywhere. We get misinformation not only if we’re questioned in a leading way, but if we talk to other witnesses who might consciously or inadvertently feed us some erroneous information, or if we see media coverage about some event we might have experienced, all of these provide the opportunity for this kind of contamination of our memory.

Elizabeth Loftus further discusses studies in which the researchers were able to “implant” false memories in their subjects. In one case, the researchers tried to convince subjects they got lost in a mall when they were little and had to eventually be rescued by a parent—about 25% of the subjects believed the story. In a more shocking study, half of the subjects were successfully convinced they were attacked by a bear when they were little.

In her lecture, Loftus also discusses the negative responses, including a lawsuit, received for her discoveries. The lawsuit was by a woman who had accused her mother of sexual abuse based on a repressed memory. Loftus was researched the case and concluded that the woman had made up a false memory. Importantly, Thomas Vinterberg’s film The Hunt, nominated Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars 2014, follows a very similar plot. False memories are also a theme in Christopher Nolan’s Memento.

So what do Elizabeth Loftus’ studies tell about the nature of memory? In her own words:

If I’ve learned anything from these decades of working on these problems, it’s this: just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, doesn’t mean that it really happened. We can’t reliably distinguish true memories from false memories.

In less philosophical matters, this is best illustrated by the recent steampunk mania from which this steampunk clothing store sprung out.