Power of suggestion linked to memory distortion

Cynthia Gomez

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UC Irvine psychology professor Elizabeth Loftus presented a lecture and a PowerPoint presentation titled, “What’s the Matter with Memory,” on Feb. 21. The lecture focused on memory and memory distortion.

“It think it’s understanding an aspect of how the mind works and professor Loftus is very well-known and it’s exposing (people) to psychological theory,” said Stella Theodoulou, dean of the College of Social ‘ Behavioral Sciences at CSUN.

Loftus presented her lecture to an audience of about 235 people at the Whitsett Room in Sierra Hall, where she discussed the focus on the work she accomplished based on memory in the legal system, along with other collaborators.

“…We have seen a growing number of cases where individuals have been convicted of crimes and ultimately, with new developments in DNA technology, it’s been shown that they were wrongfully convicted,” Loftus said.

She said the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing, indicates that currently, 231 individuals are exonerated.

“When these cases have been analyzed, these individuals who spent five, or 10, or 15, 20 years in prison for these crimes they didn’t do, the major cause of those false convictions is faulty eyewitness of memory,” Loftus said.

Loftus said that along with other collaborators, she began her early work on memory distortion at the beginning of her career in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I was interested in whether you could change people’s memory for the details of an event they actually did see and so we would show people films of accidents or films of crimes and try to distort there memory,” she said.

Loftus gave an example of memory distortion where she and other collaborators worked on subjects who were shown an accident where a car does not stop at a stop sign. “And by asking the leading question that insinuated that it was a yield sign, we could get many of our subjects to remember seeing a yield sign instead of a stop sign,” Loftus said.

Loftus called this the misinformation effect.

“If you give people misinformation about an event that they have experienced, you can distort their memory for the details of the event,” she said. “And sometimes there’s distorting (that) can be very significant because it can be of a difference between who’s liable and who’s responsible and needs to pay for the injury.”

Loftus said most recently, she and other collaborators wanted to know how far they could go with people by planting false memories into people’s minds. She said that in proposing a work, you need to propose a work to the Human Subjects Committee, which reviews research proposals that will not harm subjects. Loftus said she and her collaborators had to come up with a kind of false memory that they could use, but would not harm human subjects.

Subjects were told, “When you were a kid, you were 5 or 6 years old, you were lost in a shopping mall, you were frighten, you were crying, and ultimately, you were rescued after a long period of time and reunited with your family,” Loftus said.

Loftus described the methodology she and her collaborators used on a subject.

“We talked to the subject and we’d say, ‘You know subject, we’ve been talking to your mother about some things that happened to you when you were a child and we want to ask you about those experience, so we’d like you to think back when you were 5 or 6 years old and we’re going to tell you about some of the things we learned from your mother and we’d like to see what you remember about those experience. And if you don’t remember, just say, I just don’t remember that experience,'” Loftus said.

Loftus said that she and her collaborators presented the subject with three true memories that the mother really told them and a made-up experience about a time the subject got lost in the mall as a young child. “We interviewed our subjects suggestively on three occasions, and by the time we were done, a quarter of our subjects felt for the suggestion and began to remember all our part of this made up experience about being lost in the mall,” Loftus said.

Loftus discussed the implications of memory distortion at the end of her lecture.

“We can almost be said to have what you could call a recipe for how to develop a false memory,” Loftus said. “First of all, an event is made causable to them (subjects) and there’s lots of different ways that can happen. Second of all, you create a belief in the part of a person that the event happened to them. And finally, by engaging them in imagination and other sorts of mental activities that embellish that belief with a lot of sensory detail, you give them a feeling that they’re actually having a real recollection instead of having something that is a product of suggestion.”