Dr. Elizabeth Loftus for the People

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Psychology has but a few superstars whose research is widely known across all of our sub-disciplines, and whose findings, books, and talks are influential for people not involved in Psychology. This level of renown is rare because to be known in the public requires an influence that directly affects our social mores and activities; because Psychology has grown large and divided in many ways, and for so many other reasons having to do with luck (both good and bad), timing, and unpredictable trends.

One of these rare scientists who has that level of dynamism, public influence, luck (both good and bad) and enduring research is Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, of the University of California at Irvine. Dr. Loftus is best known for her research with memory, false memory. She and her collaborators have demonstrated that even vivid recollections of seemingly meaningful life events can be false and undergo reconstruction within the context of current, on-going process for recall. Much as we feel attached to our memories and use them to define ourselves, these memory constructs are fluid. The model of memory as a reconstructive updating process (as opposed to a static, maintained mental record) was effectively borne out in the research of Dr. Loftus and colleagues, but made her one of the most sought after Psychologists in the world for consultation and as a “Witness for the Defense” on criminal legal cases — particularly those involving eye-witness testimony. Her research has challenged core beliefs about the cognitive model of memory and its processes and, in doing so, changed public perception about how we know ourselves and our pasts. Her TED talks, books, many interviews, and scholarly publications are strongly recommended and have been enjoyed by literally millions of people at this point, and in close to three dozen languages around the world.

Dr. Loftus introduces herself:

Elizabeth Fishman (the “Loftus” came later) was born in 1944 and grew up in West Los Angeles and later, Bel Air, California. Her parents met during WWII while her mother worked as a librarian at the base where her father was a military physician. They married and started a family in Los Angeles with the father continuing his medical practice as a GP working long hours and making house calls. I asked Dr. Loftus what sorts of things really interested her during those early years (tween to teens). “Boys” she said. No hesitation, wry smile. During her childhood Beth excelled in academic topics but her diary was filled with the daily reflections, dramas and life lessons of going steady.

Dr. Loftus’ life was been filled with a heavy dose of luck — a lot of bad and a lot of good. Her adolescence was  tragically altered by the death of her mother in 1959 when Beth was 14, her brothers 12 and 9 years old. The mother had drowned in the family’s pool and the loss was sudden, horrible, and deeply affecting. Two years later, in Nov. 1961, was the Bel Air Fire. The fire had raged across this community, destroying close to 500 homes and more than 16,000 acres in its path. Beth and her family lost their home and much of their possessions along with thousands of others. Dr. Loftus reflected on that in the next audio clip (below). Near the same time as that fire, Beth’s father remarried bringing in a new step-monster, I mean mother, and three step-siblings into what would be their rebuilt family home. Beth’s teenage years were challenged by these difficult family relationships and the recovery from the tragedies she endured. 

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(Dr. Loftus’ copy of a 1961 Life magazine. The images from that feature article show her on the telephone to her father, and in front of her family’s home with the possessions that she and neighbors had salvaged.)

There’s several different pieces of her childhood that we discussed in this next excerpt, from skipping a grade in elementary school to the fire to heading to grad school:

We get several glimpses into who Beth was in her youth and some of the poignant events of that time. Her sharp intellect is evident as is her work ethic. Dr. Loftus recalled that she had skipped a grade in elementary school to join her friend Frieda, subsequently advancing her graduation to an early mid-term date when in high school. She recalled the Bel Air fire when she was 16 years old. Notably, Beth had driven home from school along the back roads and, in doing so, by-passed whatever barriers had been erected by the fire department. Upon reaching her home she was aware of the fire and rushed in to get…the encyclopedia she needed for a homework assignment. A teddy bear, and maybe her diaries were also rescued by her last second dash into the house.

Of course, the irony of asking Dr. Loftus to try to recount these important parts of her history is that she is more than acutely aware just how inaccurate memories can be, and how they change over time.  She has heard the stories and recollections from others at that time; she’s seen the news reports and was, herself interviewed and photographed in Life magazine — her teary teenager photo, complete with teddy bear cuddled to her chest, is an iconic image from that fire and featured in Life’s cover story. After a career in false memories, Dr. Loftus is all too aware that her “memories” are reconstructed. So we don’t know what she was thinking or why she selected the items she did, but there it is. To top it off she recounts that in high school she won a math award and an award for perfect attendance.  Think about that. To win those awards means that even though her family lost its home, Beth didn’t take time off from school after the fire. She didn’t take extra days off from school following her mother’s death. There were no sick days as she transitioned to living with her new step-family. Persevering through sickness, health, tragedy, and act of god Beth excelled in her classes and maintained her streak of attendance. That’s who she was.

In this next excerpt, Dr. Loftus describes her journey into Psychology and grad school:

The University of California schools are great and, while Beth might have aspired to go to Radcliffe/Harvard, she attended UCLA for her undergrad. She completed majors in Math and Psychology while partially supporting herself as a professional note-taker. Her studious habits enabled her to get paid to be an attentive, high performing student in her courses. Moreover, she determined from these dual interests in Math and Psychology a career  path moving into graduate school: Mathematical Psychology.   As it happened, Mathematical Psychology was a feature at Stanford University. So on she went — although it wasn’t quite what Beth had imagined, as this sub-field was focused on mathematical models of learning, and modeling cognitive processes in mathematics. Consequently, Beth went to Stanford keen to use Psychology for the betterment of mathematical understanding in the public, possibly in education, and quickly switched gears and research after her arrival. For those who have followed Dr. Loftus’ career, one might also note it was at Stanford that she met Geoff Loftus (an excellent memory researcher in his own right) — leading to a marriage that eventually became a life-long friendship.

They were quite the hot couple back at Stanford:

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(Beth and Geoff Loftus in the late 1960’s)

Dr. Loftus completed her PhD at Stanford in 1970 and took a position at The New School, in Manhattan, NY. It was during this time that she moved into developing a research program to address more socially-relevant memory questions.

In this next excerpt, Dr. Loftus describes how she came to thinking about Psychology and Law and finding the trajectory of her scholarship thereafter:

There were big questions of morality, justice, and cognition in this application of memory to the legal system. Moreover, there was a real possibility to use the research in a socially-relevant way and to address issues that Dr. Loftus found herself increasingly fascinated by. From these ideas she embarked on a career that took her deep into an understanding of memory’s accuracy and its plasticity. Her early studies demonstrated that if there was misinformation in the language used to ask about a recent event it could alter the recall of that memory (i.e., the misinformation effect). Once Dr. Loftus and colleagues had determined this malleability to memory with their early paradigms, it cascaded to challenging many assumptions in the public. How does one’s memory change over time? What is likely to remain static and accurate in memory (maybe nothing?) and what will be altered? When is memory most amenable to change? These theoretical questions in her scholarship very quickly collided with the practicality of how this might affect eye-witness testimony in legal trials. By 1972 Dr. Loftus had started to get involved in legal cases providing guidance to lawyers and juries about the state of memory research, and its many caveats for using that testimony as evidence.

Misinformation and its influence on memory produced important findings, but a bigger goal emerged for Dr. Loftus. She needed to determine whether totally false memories could be synthesized. Was the human memory so malleable as to produce a new “memory” even if it never happened? Dr. Loftus thought about this for years and recalls when she determined the paradigm that might allow this to be tested directly:

The “Lost-at-the-Mall” paradigm occurred to Dr. Loftus in 1991 after giving a visiting lecture at the University of Georgia. She thought about it and thought some more. She incited her students and her colleagues to consider a new paradigm that might prompt the creation of a memory that had never happened. Eventually all this thinking, pilot testing, and thought experimenting led to publications in the mid-1990’s demonstrating the development of plausible and compelling false memories in a laboratory experiment. The effect was striking: just over a quarter of the participants synthesized a memory for an event that never occurred. In this paradigm, people were asked to recall three events from childhood. Two of the events were real and presented with some modest detail that had been provided by their parents. A third event (being lost at a mall as a child) was presented in the same manner but had never happened to the participant (as confirmed by the parents).  In this context, many participants stated they had no memory for being lost, but some did albeit vaguely. When those participants were retested, the “mall” memories became more vivid and details began to emerge.  It must have made for an interesting set of conversations as the participants were debriefed and told about this deception. For Dr. Loftus the importance of this was evident: false memories can be created with very modest suggestion. Her explorations of these false memories took her into some sensitive and controversial issues: can one trust a witness in a criminal case? Can one trust emergent “repressed” memories of past traumas? Dr. Loftus studied these cases and the many claims from its proponents to find little validity and much to be doubted in the painful claims from those “discovering” repressed “memories.”

In delving into the life and personal evolution of Dr. Loftus over her career there is much material available. For those who love the stories from great scholar’s lives, I strongly recommend the excellent interviews she did on Inside the Psychologist’s Studio with Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher (also a fantastic cognitive-neuroscientist) and also with Dr. Carol Tavris (also a fantastic social psychologist), and her own extensive autobiographical materials. For now I can say that Dr. Loftus’ life and research into false memory took her on a journey through criminal and civil cases as witness, consultant, and in one of the most difficult times of her life, as a defendant.  There is much more to Dr. Loftus’ life and career, and I look forward to sharing more of her words with you in the book!

(Featured image is Dr. Loftus on the cover of Pacific magazine, 1994; at the top of the page is Dr. Loftus at age 17 as photographed for her yearbook)

Please find a complete listing of Dr. Loftus’ publications on her google scholar profile:

https://scholar.google.co.uk/citations?user=ZNoHqr8AAAAJ&hl=en&oi=sra

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