The Fiction of Memory lecture reveals susceptibility of any individual
By Aaron Guillen, Staff Reporter
“What if I could make you remember an event that never happened?”
On July 26, Douglas College hosted a psychology lecture—led by Elizabeth F. Loftus—aiming to uncover the mystery behind false memories.
Loftus, an accomplished American cognitive psychologist, has received numerous awards and degrees for her work in the area of human memory. With over 500 research articles and 22 books under her belt, she is regarded as one of the most influential psychological researchers in her field. She is widely known for her work on the misinformation effect, a topic she coined and dove straight into during her lecture in late July.
“Memory doesn’t always work perfectly,” said Loftus during the lecture. “Before eyewitnesses are called to testify, they may undergo preparation from an investigator who wants every single detail of an event. In those crucial moments, a single leading question can have individuals believe facts that are completely false and adopt it as their own truth.”
Loftus took a closer look at how cognitive psychology played a key role in the Presidential election last year in the United States. She pointed out that while the public may have wavered on their opinions of Trump’s attack ads (calling Hillary Clinton a liar about Benghazi and private emails), one attack had hard proof against Clinton’s recollection of landing in Bosnia.
According to Clinton in 2008, she remembered a corkscrew landing, sniper fire, and a cancelled airport reception when she traveled to Bosnia in 1996. In actuality, the real photographs painted a different picture. They showed that Clinton had a peaceful meet and greet with children and soldiers upon landing. After news coverage picked up the story pointing out the disconnect between memory and reality, Clinton made an apology, claiming that it proved she’s a human who could make a mistake. The question remains: what caused her to believe that those events took place?
Loftus explained how she has dealt with numerous legal cases, resulting into what she calls the Innocence Project. Along with fellow researchers, Loftus uncovered 350 individuals who had been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, after DNA had proven their innocence many years later. The cases that had been analyzed concluded that faulty human memory played a role in around 70 per cent of the 350 convictions.
As a renowned psychologist, Loftus has researched various groups of individuals, from soldiers to pedestrians. During a training session, trained soldiers underwent a hostile interrogation to see if they would adopt misinformation and claim it as their own. In many instances, researchers were able to plant false facts about objects that were present or the features of an interrogator.
“The misinformation effect can depress individuals’ memory performance control from 70 per cent to 30 per cent,” said Loftus.
“We began to see more extreme kinds of memory problems. We heard of many cases in which a woman would go into therapy with a minor psychological battle, perhaps with anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and leave with seemingly real unearthed memories. Memories of horrific childhood trauma, previous rape situations she had been unaware of, or being forced into satanic ritual with baby sacrifices.”
This odd moment in the ’90s left the psychology community questioning where those bizarre memories came from, with Loftus at the forefront. It was soon hypothesized that there were five key factors that affected memory: imagination, dream interpretation, hypnosis, doctored photographs, and exposure to false information.
Loftus shared with the audience how she began thinking about the possibility of implanting whole false memories, not simply just a complete reality with missing or additional details. She coined the phrase “rich false memory” alongside her research partner, Dr. Dan Bernstein.
Her preliminary tests were able to convince 33 per cent of her sample size that they were rescued by a lifeguard after nearly drowning as a young child and 50 per cent that they were attacked by a vicious animal in an indoor or outdoor accident. A recent Canadian study was able to convince a strong minority of individuals that they committed a crime that was serious enough to include a police investigation when they were teenagers.
In one of her well known studies, Asparagus: A Love Story, Loftus proved that false memories had the potential to affect later thoughts and behaviours. She hypothesized that she would be able to plant a false memory that participants were sick of eating certain foods when they were children, thus affecting what they would then eat in the present day. By planting a warm, fuzzy memory of asparagus during childhood, a large percentage of participants chose the lean, green vegetable amongst a selection of foods to eat after the test.
When it comes to susceptibility, “everyone is on the same playing field,” said Loftus. “In fact, individuals with highly superior memory (HSM) scale similarly to those with normal memories.”
Loftus points out that differentiating between true and false memory is almost impossible. Firstly, neuroimaging reports provide sufficient proof, with an overwhelming similarity between neural signals from the brain. In addition, emotions can run just as deep with false memories.
Lastly, she noted how many ethical issues arise when it comes to cognitive psychology. Though this increase in knowledge may allow humans to live happier and healthier lives, will there be unintended consequences?
Misinformation is everywhere. If police officers or journalists ask leading questions, a story can take a 180 degree turn, distorting the reality of what actually took place. Loftus suggests that individuals stay vigilant to protect their memories.
“Just because there’s confidence, detail, and emotion, doesn’t mean it really happened. Memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing.”