How the Truth Gets Twisted

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

November/December 2012

Reading time min

How the Truth Gets Twisted

Graphic: Randy Lyhus (incorporating photos courtesy of David Noah)

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 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."

Loftus stands in front of a burning home, clutching a teddy bear tightly to her chest. Furniture and appliances are piled all around the outside.EMBERS OF THE PAST: Photos of the fire that consumed her family home mean Loftus needn't rely on recall.

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.

Loftus is holding onto Geoff, climbing onto the back of his motorcycle. She's wearing dark sunglasses and what appears to be a scarf.FOND MEMORIES: with then-beau, now 'wasband,' Geoff, circa 1968.

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 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 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 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.

'People embrace eyewitness testimony so uncritically because they believe that memory can accurately and pristinely store events and replay them for you later on.'

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 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."

Loftus sits among a throng of well-dressed men. She is in the second row, with sunglasses over her head and her arms folded.A STANDOUT: Loftus and her Stanford peers at Ventura Hall.

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 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 memories."

Ann Marsh, '88, is a writer living in Pasadena, Calif.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.