Loftus memory

False Memory Elizabeth Loftus

Your memories help you separate friends from enemies. They remind you not to eat too much ice cream or drink cheap tequila because you remember how horrible it felt the last time you indulged.

One conversation with Elizabeth Loftus may shake your confidence in everything you think you remember. Loftus is a cognitive psychologist and expert on the malleability of human memory. She can, quite literally, change your mind.

"She's most known for her important work on memory distortion and false memories, " says Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University who first met Loftus in 1979 and describes her as energetic, smart and passionate. "It's made people in the legal system aware the memory does not work like a tape recorder."

In fact, Loftus' research shows your memory works more like a Wikipedia page - a transcription of history created by multiple people's perceptions and assumptions that's constantly changing.

Eyewitness testimony

One of Loftus' first experiments, , involved car accidents. In the lab she played videos of different incidents and then asked people what they remembered seeing. Their answers depended greatly on how she phrased the question.

For instance, if she asked how fast the cars were going when they "smashed" into each other, people estimated, on average, that the cars were going 7 mph faster than when she substituted the word "hit" for "smashed." And a week after seeing the video, those who were asked using the word "smashed" remembered seeing broken glass, even though there was none in the film.

Even a seemingly less important word in the sentence can make a difference in an eyewitness account, Loftus found. In a subsequent study she asked people if they saw " broken headlight" or "the broken headlight." Those who were asked about "the" broken headlight were more likely to remember seeing it, though it never existed.

Police officers' biggest mistake is talking too much, Loftus says. "They don't, you know, wait and let the witness talk. They are sometimes communicating information to the witness, even inadvertently, that can convey their theory of what happened, their theory of who did it."

This is particularly troubling when witnesses are identifying a perpetrator in a lineup. One of Loftus' studies found even facial recognition can be "contagious" - if a witness overhears another witness or police officer describe a misleading facial feature, they are more likely to describe the criminal with that feature.

It's not all the cops' fault. "Misinformation is out there in the real world, everywhere, " Loftus says. "Witnesses talk to each other ... they turn on the television or read the newspaper if it's a high-publicity event. They see other witnesses' account. All of these situations provide opportunities for new information to supplement, distort or contaminate their memories."

Loftus has testified in and consulted on hundreds of trials over the past several decades, usually for the defense. Many were high-profile cases, including those of the Hillside Strangler, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Oliver North and Phil Spector.

She's not bothered by defending people others sometimes see as vicious criminals.

"DNA testing ... has revealed that there are hundreds and hundreds of people who have been convicted in crimes, and they're completely innocent, " she says, noting that they're often convicted because of unreliable eyewitness testimony.

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