30 May 2020

Professor Elizabeth Loftus: how memory is made

From Saturday Morning, 4:55 pm on 30 May 2020

Professor Elizabeth Loftus is an authority on the power and limitations of human memory, appearing as an expert witness in many high profile trials, including those of Ted Bundy, Harvey Weinstein, and OJ Simpson.

Her ideas about the accuracy of our memories, and the shortcomings of eyewitness evidence, have proved highly controversial.

Brain profile showing pre-frontal cortex.

Photo: University of Canterbury

Beginning in the 1980s and reaching a peak in the early 1990s, the so-called "Memory Wars" spread around the world, as accusations of child abuse - and in particular, satanic ritual abuse - were made after repressed memories were "recovered" through now debunked psychotherapy techniques.

New Zealand was not exempt - the 1993 conviction of Peter Ellis for sexual assaults on children at the Christchurch Civic Creche divided the country and still does to this day. While some believed the children who accused him were telling the truth, others had concerns about the interview techniques used by police and therapists to obtain their testimony.

Ellis maintained his innocence for 26 years, but died before his appeal for his conviction to be overturned could be heard by the Supreme Court.

A Distinguished Professor of Psychological Science and Law at the University of California Irvine, Loftus visited New Zealand in the early 2000s to discuss the case with the New Zealand Psychological Society and was met by protesters, who said she shouldn't be speaking, or that the conference should have had someone in favour of recovered memory speaking also.

She told Kim Hill today that studies had shown that false memories could be easily implanted in people, through a number of experiments.

"One of the things that we know about memory and particularly memory distortion and false memories, is that false memories have many of the same qualities as true memories, people can have the experience and describe it in a lot of detail, with a lot of confidence, with a lot of emotion, whether it's true or false, she said."

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Professor Elizabeth Loftus. Photo: BDEngler / CC BY-SA /3.0)

In the years following the "memory wars", Loftus and other scientists embarked on studies which attempted to implant false memories in test subjects.

In these studies, researchers would expose people to an event, such as a simulated crime or a car accident. Afterwards, they would also supply them with some misleading information.

"When these witnesses are exposed to misinformation, it can contaminate, distort or transform their memory and make them remember something differently from the way it really happened," Loftus said.

The studies found they could make people remember the car going through a stop sign rather than a yield sign, or that an offender was wearing a brown jacket rather than a blue jacket.

After many more similar studies on distorted memories were completed, Loftus began to wonder just how far they could take this - whether they could implant a memory of something that never actually occurred.

This resulted in a study that would be known as the "lost in the shopping mall experiment".

Loftus said they wanted to implant a memory in an ethical way, that would not traumatise the subject - so they settled on an innocuous story about being lost in a shopping mall as a young child and ultimately being rescued by an elderly person and reunited with their family.

Subjects were told researchers would talk to their parents and then ask them if they could remember experiences from their childhoods - except some were true and one was false.

"We found that after just a few suggestive interviews, we could get about a quarter of ordinary, healthy human beings to believe or remember all or some of this made up experience," Loftus said.

Following this experiment, researchers started to implant false memories of more traumatic events, such as being attacked by a wild animal.

"You can get people to tell you what the animal looked like and where they were when it happened," Loftus said.

"It's got a whole lot of detail and they sometimes express it with a lot of confidence. They sometimes expand on it, beyond the few details we used to suggest it in the first place."

These were described as "rich false memories", for the level of detail invoked - and there have since been a whole collection of studies on these kinds of memories.

At the end of the experiments, subjects were debriefed and apologised to for having to use deception. Loftus said for the most past, people were fascinated by the process and wanted to learn more about the psychology behind it.

However, despite being told the memories were false, some subjects continued to be able to visualise the event afterwards.

Peter Ellis always maintained his innocence after being found guilty of 16 counts of sexual abuse in 1993, and repeatedly sought to overthrow the convictions.

Peter Ellis always maintained his innocence after being found guilty of 16 counts of sexual abuse in 1993, and repeatedly sought to overthrow the convictions. Photo: Getty Images

Loftus said that some of the claims being made in the repressed memory cases of the '90s defied everything scientists knew about the nature of memory.

"I remember one case where she claimed that her father raped her repeatedly between the ages of five and 16 and she repressed it into her unconscious, completely unaware of it until she was about 18 or 19."

She said there was no credible evidence that "prolonged, horrific trauma can be banished into the unconscious in this way" - and if anything, most people who had experienced such trauma had trouble forgetting it.

However, Loftus' research has attracted a fair amount of controversy - and one study led to her being sued by a woman who had accused her mother of sexual assaulting her as a young child.

She describes this period as "a very sad chapter", where she came to believe the mother could be innocent, as the accusations had arisen during a vicious divorce and custody battle between the mother and father of the woman.

"This poor mother lost custody and visitation of her little girl after these allegations surfaced and I was suspicious of this case," Loftus said.

"And when I ultimately investigated the case and became kind of convinced in my heart that there was a really strong chance that this mother was completely innocent, I then endured a lot of difficulty from the accusing daughter who ended up suing me and a number of other people."

The resulting article was published in the Skeptical Inquirer magazine in 2002, using pseudonyms. Loftus had sourced information about the case using the private investigator, who managed to track down the accused mother, but ultimately decided not to talk to the daughter.

The accusing woman found this process invasive and sued Loftus under her real name, Nicole Kleumper. She was interviewed alongside Loftus about her experiences in an episode of the podcast This American Life last year.

While initially convinced of her mother's guilt, Kleumper said in the interview that the article had planted a seed of doubt.

"It just created this back and forth that I continue to live with today-- it did happen, it didn't happen. Some days, I fall somewhere in between," she told This American Life.

Loftus would attract even more controversy when she testified as an expert witness in the sexual assault trial of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

"Let me just say that was a very difficult case, for me to go to New York and actually testify," she said. "I was hesitant and when I asked myself, why are you hesistant, it was because I had read so much media coverage about the case and I was seduced by the media coverage and yet for decades I've been saying to people, you cannot let the media decide who's innocent and guilty."

She also had concerns about whether testifying in the case would hurt her ability to help other people in the future - because they might ask, "didn't you testify for Harvey Weinstein? You would testify for anyone."

The testimony she provided in the end was "quite limited", she said.

"I never read any of the police reports, it was just general scientific memory testimony. The judge would not allow me to comment, nor was I planning to, on any of the people involved."

When asked if there were any trials she would refuse to appear in, Loftus said there was one time where she decided that she couldn't - the trial of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out while serving as a guard at Nazi extermination camps during World War II.

"I guess I was completely torn," she said. "I had a 90-year-old uncle who was like a father to me, who basically said 'please don't let this be the last thing you do before I die'".

Before she made a decision, Loftus embarked on months of research about the case - "because I thought it I could convince myself absolutely that he was innocent, then I would just say to my uncle, I'm sorry, I have to do this."

However, she couldn't convince herself and ultimately found another memory expert to take on the case - something she said she also attempted to do when asked to testify for Weinstein.

These days, Loftus said there were far fewer cases with claims of massive memory repression coming forward, but we were seeing different kinds of cases, as more claims of historical abuse come up.

"They typically aren't claiming massive repression but you do see campus sexual assault cases and then some of the #MeToo cases that go way way back and I think we're now starting to see litigation here arising out of those cases," she said.

These included wrongful termination cases, where people had been fired from their jobs over accusations, and defamation cases, where the accused were suing their accusers.

While there had been an insistence on believing women and children, Loftus said such claims still needed to be investigated.

"I think we need to look into these cases. What we don't need to do is just uncritically accept every single claim no matter how dubious and not even bother to investigate."