From military “survival school” to incest to satanic ritual abuse to obesity research, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus does not shy away from controversial and headlinegrabbing research topics. Described as one of the top 100 psychologists of the 20th century, Loftus has shown that what’s the matter with memory is, well, practically everything. Memory’s functioning remains largely unfathomed by researchers, but we do know, thanks largely to the ingenious experimental paradigms that Loftus designs, that human memory is limited, unreliable, and manipulable and that when it fails, it can fail with a vengeance.
Loftus is an engaging yet self-deprecating speaker (despite her renown, she still describes her latest research efforts as being “between rejections”). In the 1990s, Loftus took on the “repressed memory” movement in psychotherapy, which held that a person could repress memories of a traumatic event, such as childhood sexual abuse, for many years and “retrieve” those memories, whole and intact, through such techniques as hypnosis or guided visualization. Loftus showed that events that a patient “remembers” in this manner, although they may be emotionally compelling and detailed, may be distorted or even entirely invented, not through a deliberate desire to deceive but through errors in the incompletely understood mechanisms of human memory (including the simple power of suggestion). Well-intentioned, overzealous therapists have probably encouraged patients to remember events that never happened, destroying families and sending innocent people to prison.
The “Memory Wars” soon spilled from psychotherapy to the legal realm. Loftus has testified in numerous high-profile cases of wrongful conviction, such as the 1980s McMartin molestation case in California, which involved lurid, tabloid-style tales of ritual abuse conjured in the minds of preschoolers. Her debunking of the reliability of eyewitness testimony coincided with the wave of DNA-based exonerations that raised public awareness of the frequency of wrongful conviction. Loftus deftly demonstrated to the CSE audience the tricks that memory can play with our ability to remember faces. An amazingly large percentage of us proved incapable of recognizing the same face twice when presented with a series of faces in quick succession if even minor distortions or distractions were introduced.
If we couldn’t complete a simple face-recognition task reliably and accurately, sitting in a comfortable Hilton conference room among our colleagues and friends, how could a soldier subjected to a stressful interrogation do so? Loftus has also investigated the worrisome possibility of memory manipulation in the treatment of prisoners of war. Recently, she has turned her attention to obesity research, studying whether (false) aversive memories associated with particular foods could be useful in weight loss (alas, as with so many diets, the effects do not last long!).
Many of the cases that Loftus has been involved in read like crime thrillers, and sometimes they are crime thrillers (she has testified for O J Simpson and Ted Bundy), but she is passionate about her findings. Their implications are sobering—for the wrongfully accused, for the psychotherapy patient who needs a real rather than an imaginary explanation for psychological distress, and for scientific researchers. Surely many of us in the audience were, in our minds, tying the topic to our professional responsibilities in the communication of scientific research. Loftus did not have to tell a roomful of professional communicators that memory is only one aspect of human cognition that is flawed and malleable. Human cognitive limits and the management of their effects in conducting and reporting scientific research were a conference theme in 2009—explored in sessions on the cognitive processes involved in editorial decision making, on bias in peer review, and on ensuring the integrity of scientific data in the face of all the ways it can be inadvertently distorted or misinterpreted.
And surely many of us in the audience were also privately tying the topic to our personal memories, which define who we are as individuals and yet are astonishingly fluid.