Sheril at The Intersection is asking where the women with big, world-changing ideas are. JLK at Pieces of Me wants to know where the psychologists are who made a difference in the world. I can answer them both in one person, Elizabeth Loftus.
Even if you’re not in psychology, there’s a fair chance you’ve heard of Loftus. She’s known as a skeptic, and her work has enough real-world implications that she makes the news fairly frequently.
If you are in psychology and you don’t know who she is…well, I don’t know what to do with you.
Loftus has been researching memory for somewhere around forty years. She started out by doing what everyone around that time was doing, studying storage and retrieval, classification and chunking–the nuts and bolts of memory of items. Then she started asking the kind of questions JLK is now.
All this time, Loftus had been working seven days a week on yellow fruits: specifically, she was studying how the mind classifies and remembers information. In the early seventies, she began to reevaluate her direction. “I wanted my work to make a difference in people’s lives.” She asked herself, “What do I talk about when I have no other reason to be talking?” An impassioned conversation about a man who’d been convicted after killing someone in self-defense suggested the answer. Perhaps she could combine her interest in memory with her fascination with crime by looking at eyewitness accounts.
Loftus obtained a grant to show people films of accidents and crimes and test their memory of such events. Thus the study of eyewitness testimony was born, a field she can literally claim as her own. At that time the world believed that eyewitness testimony was as reliable as a video camera. Loftus found that just the questions interviewers asked, and even the specific words they used, significantly influenced memory. “How fast were the two cars going when they hit each other?” will elicit slower estimates than “…when they smashed each other?”
Merely by careful questioning, Loftus could cause subjects to remember stop signs as yield signs, or place nonexistent barns in empty fields. Subsequent research has shown that violent events decrease the accuracy of memory: in fact, memory is weakest at both low (boredom, sleepiness) and high (stress, trauma) levels of arousal. The bottom line? Memory is fragile, suggestible, and can easily decay over time.
In other words, she started studying how memory works in real life, with real complications. In the process, she completely changed how we think about memory. She also changed police procedures and how trials are conducted. She created a great deal of upheaval, for which she’s probably still not well liked, but she set us on the path to understanding the science behind at least one part of the law.
We live in a strange and precarious time that resembles at its heart the hysteria and superstitious fervor of the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Men and women are being accused, tried, and convicted with no proof or evidence of guilt other than the word of the accuser. Even when the accusations involve numerous perpetrators, inflicting grievous wounds over many years, even decades, the accuser’s pointing finger of blame is enough to make believers of judges and juries. Individuals are being imprisoned on the “evidence” provided by memories that come back in dreams and flashbacks — memories that did not exist until a person wandered into therapy and was asked point-blank, “Were you ever sexually abused as a child?” And then begins the process of excavating the “repressed” memories through invasive therapeutic techniques, such as age regression, guided visualization, trance writing, dream work, body work, and hypnosis.
Loftus had already seen how easy it was to change the details of memory by asking the right questions. Now she turned her attention to creating memories of events that never happened. We may not be surprised now that this can happen, and fairly easily, but much of that understanding is due to her work.
This was, of course, controversial.
She has been called a whore by a prosecutor in a courthouse hallway, assaulted by a passenger on an airplane shouting, “You’re that woman!”, and has occasionally required surveillance by plainclothes security guards at lectures.
Perhaps her voluminous mail says it best. One anonymous letter from an incest survivor concludes, “Please consider your work to be on the same level as those who deny the existence of the extermination camps during WWII.” Another, from a jailed minister accused of mass child molestation, begins, “Your dedication and compassion for the innocent have earned my deepest admiration.” Yet another, from a confused therapy patient, reads: “For the past two years I have done little else but try to remember. I have been told that my unconscious will release the memories in its own time and in its own way…And I need to know if I am really remembering. The guessing has become unbearable.”
Loftus has been challenged on the basis that she doesn’t study traumatic memory formation in children. However, her work (and others‘) suggests that the use of leading questioning, hypnosis, descriptions of others’ abuse and statements that a patient matches the profile of an abuse victim are all problematic forms of therapy that could potentially lead to false memories being created. Her work, once again, has practical implications for how we help others and society.
Wherever one falls on the controversies surrounding Loftus, she has dramatically changed our understanding of memory. She’s done this in ways that have direct implications for achieving justice. In doing so, she’s changed our world.