How Much Can You Trust Your Memories?- Elizabeth Loftus

Thirty one year old Steve Titus was a restaurant manager, living in Seattle, Washington. One night, he and his fiancée were driving in a car and a police officer told him to pull over. Titus’ car resembled the sedan that was driven earlier that evening by a man who raped a female hitchhiker, and unfortunately, Titus kind of happened to look like the rapist. The policeman took a picture of Titus and the victim identified him as the man resembling closest to the said rapist. During the trial, the victim confidently declares Titus as the assaulter, who(Titus) was as a result sentenced to prison.

Titus had lost faith in the legal system. He, however, decided to contact the local newspaper where his proposal sparked the interest of a particular investigative journalist. The journalist went ahead and found the real rapist, who confessed to his crimes. When the information about how the real culprit was thought to have committed around 50 rapes, reached the judge, he set Titus free.

Steve Titus’ life was not the same anymore. He had lost his job, his fiancée and his entire savings. One morning, Titus doubled up with pain and died as a result of a stress-related heart attack at the age of just 35.

Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who has researched about Memory all her life, was told to work on this case. Elizabeth does not study what people forget, but studies what they remember. She studies ‘False Memories’, a phenomena where people remember things that never really happened.

Like Titus, around 300 people in the United States were convicted based on someone’s faulty memory. Why does this happen?

Our memories are constructive, they are also reconstructive. they work like a Wikipedia page – you can change your own memory but so can others. Elizabeth Loftus performed an experiment in the 1970s that involved feigning crimes and accidents and consequently interrogating witnesses about what they remember. In one study, a group of participants were shown a simulated car accident and were asked the question, “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?”. Participants in this group answered saying around 34 mph. Another group was asked the same question, but instead of the word ‘Hit’, they used, ‘Smashed’. Participants in this group answered saying 41 mph. The people in the ‘Smashed’ group also reported seeing broken glass in the accident scene when there really wasn’t any.

In another study, a simulated accident was shown where a car went through an intersection with a stop sign. When the researchers asked the same group of participants a question hinting at a yield sign instead, many witnesses agreed remembering a yield sign.

These studies show us that when you feed people with false information about some experience they may have had , you can influence or change their memory.

In 1990, Elizabeth noticed another problem with Memory. People were going into therapy with one problem and were coming out of therapy with a different one. They came out with memories of extreme horrific brutalization, sometimes in satanic rituals and sometimes involving some bizarre events. When Elizabeth inspected these cases, she found that in most of these situations, therapists have used specific forms of psychotherapy such as,

  • Imagination
  • Dream interpretation
  • Hypnosis
  • Exposure to false information

Does planting a false memory in someone’s mind have repercussions? and does it affect his later thoughts?

The answer is yes! In one of her studies, Elizabeth planted a false memory into her subjects by divulging that they got sick as children when eating a certain type of food. When that particular type of food was presented, many participants were either reluctant to eat or completely avoided it.

False memories are not always bad or unpleasant. A parent can use False Memories to get his/her obese child to eat healthy. Ethically, a therapist cannot plant false memories in the mind of a patient even if it helps him. This act would be categorized under the code of ethics: Deception.

Thanks to Elizabeth Loftus, we have an insight on our tricky memories! This leads us to an interesting question… Can we truly trust all our memories?!

This article is based on the TedX talk by Elizabeth Loftus.



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