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Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth Loftus

Occasionally, we take our memories for granted, but what if they're not as solid as we believe? Elizabeth Loftus explains why this is the case.

  • Who is Elizabeth Loftus?

  • What did Elizabeth Loftus theorize on memories?

  • What did Elizabeth Loftus discover in her experiment?

  • How did Elizabeth Loftus contribute to the psychological field?

  • How did Elizabeth Loftus conduct her false memory experiment?

Elizabeth Loftus: Psychology

Elizabeth Loftus drawing of Elizabeth Loftus StudySmarter

Elizabeth Loftus, StudySmarter Original

Elizabeth Loftus has spent most of her career studying the psychological and legal implications of false memories. She is most famed for her ideas on manipulating memories through things we are told or exposure to misinformation. Loftus's “lost-in-the-mall” procedure in psychology helped investigate the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies and the negative impacts of misinformation.

As a psychology graduate student, Elizabeth Loftus had some experience studying human memory (semantic memory), but she desired something with more social significance and practical use. As a result, Loftus looked into eyewitness testimonies and legal applications of psychology.

Due to the controversial nature of her psychological research, Loftus has also attracted a fair amount of criticism. A woman who claimed her mother sexually abused her as a child even sued Loftus after Loftus published a controversial expose in which she believed the mother didn't commit the abuse. Despite the controversies, Loftus proved her doubters wrong as she fought for her work and expertise.

Elizabeth Loftus: Contribution to Psychology

Elizabeth Loftus earned the 58th spot (and the top-ranked woman) among the 100 most influential in psychology, alongside Freud, Skinner, and Piaget. Her studies on memory, eyewitness testimony, and courtroom procedures made her known as one of the most important researchers in psychology.

Loftus's psychology research revealed that our memories might not be as reliable as we think. She successfully planted false memories, giving insight into the complexities of memory significant to forensic and cognitive psychology. Loftus's work also questioned the accuracy of repressed memories and eyewitness testimonies, allowing for substantial contributions to the legal applications of psychology.

Loftus believed that although people can forget traumatic experiences, not all recovered memories of abuse are accurate because of memory distortion. An example of memory distortion is through suggestion.

In psychotherapy, the therapist may inadvertently suggest abuse as an explanation for a person's symptoms, creating false memories of abuse.

Elizabeth Loftus: Experiment

Elizabeth Loftus's knowledge of memory, interest in psychology, and love of crime fiction led to a series of experiments examining a unique and controversial part of human memory. One of them is her well-known “lost in a shopping mall” false memory experiment. But first, let's look at one of Loftus's earlier studies in psychology.

In 1974, Loftus studied how human memory can be distorted by post-event information, focusing on automobile accidents. In her research, Loftus discovered that substituting a more suggestive word for a neutral one in a question can alter a witness's memory.

Elizabeth Loftus experiment broken glass on the ground StudySmarter

Broken glass on the ground, pexels.com

For instance, changing the term “hit” to “smashed” in a question led more witnesses to recall something (broken glass) that wasn't there when the incident happened.

Loftus thought eyewitness testimonies alone shouldn't convict someone. Eyewitness testimonies and memory distortion remained her focus in psychology for the next 15 years.

Elizabeth Loftus: False Memory Experiment

Elizabeth Loftus took her research on memory further when she became interested in the psychology of repressed memories. She took it as a challenge to discover the psychology behind false memories and their effect on what we think and do next.

Elizabeth Loftus: False Memory Experiment – Lost in a Shopping Mall

Elizabeth Loftus wondered if it was possible to make a person remember something that didn't happen and, if so, how she could do that ethically. Loftus finally came up with the idea of making the participants believe they got lost in a shopping mall when they were children, even if it never happened.

Elizabeth Loftus false memory experiment kid in a shopping mall StudySmarterKid squatting on the floor, pexels.com

Chris, a 14-year-old boy

One of Elizabeth Loftus' initial successes with false memory implantation involved a 14-year-old boy named Chris. His mother and older brother, Jim, detailed Chris's three childhood experiences with them. Jim, then, helped in making up one fake incident.

The fake memory involved Chris being lost at his family's go-to shopping mall in Spokane, Washington, when he was five. He cried a lot when an older man came to his rescue and took him back to his family. Loftus instructed Chris to write daily over five days about the four events, including any details that come to mind. He wrote “I don't remember” if he couldn't think of more information.

In his re-interview with Loftus, he scored the false memory as 8 (second highest) and two actual memories as 1 (not clear) and 5. He described getting lost in a toy store and being rescued by a bald, glasses-wearing man in a blue flannel shirt. Loftus then revealed to him that one of the memories was false. Can you guess which memory he identified as wrong? Believe it or not, he chose one of the actual memories as false!

More false memory experiments

Elizabeth Loftus's critics express concern over the possibility of implanted false memories as actual experiences that have only recently been recovered from memory by suggestive incorrect information.

Elizabeth Loftus false memory experiment Bugs Bunny StudySmarterBugs Bunny, commons.wikimedia.org

For this reason, Loftus and colleagues sought another study involving impossible false memories. They showed participants a fake Disney ad starring Bugs Bunny, eliciting false memories of shaking hands with Bugs Bunny at a Disney resort. Around 16% of participants “remembered” this fake memory, with increasing false beliefs, as seen in another study when the ad included a photo of Bugs Bunny instead of only making a verbal reference to the character.

Elizabeth Loftus: Theory

Elizabeth Loftus's memory research led her to conclude that human memory can be manipulated by any information, such as misinformation or suggestive ideas.

Elizabeth Loftus: Theory – Misinformation Effect

Loftus defined this phenomenon in psychology as a change of memories of past events due to exposure to false information. People may often claim details about an event they saw that weren't there.

A witness may receive new information from an investigator affecting his memory of the event.

Elizabeth Loftus: Theory – Discrepancy Detection Principle

When are people vulnerable to the harmful effects of misinformation? According to Elizabeth Loftus, memory distortion is less likely if people notice differences between misinformation and their original memory. Even if a person sees the difference, however, this principle does not make it impossible for false memories to be made.

Tousignant et al. (1986) illustrated how discrepancy detection plays a part in the misinformation effect. Loftus and her team used a slide projector to demonstrate a fictitious wallet snatching incident. There were two versions (neutral and misleading) of the post-event narrative with 15 sentences each, presented one sentence at a time on a black and white monitor.

The results showed that people who read more slowly on their own or were told to read more slowly were more likely to notice differences and were more resistant to misinformation.

Elizabeth Loftus - Key takeaways

  • Elizabeth Loftus focused her research on false memory creation, eyewitness testimonies, and courtroom procedures.

  • Elizabeth Loftus believes that our memories don't always stick in their original form but are subject to manipulation when exposed to misinformation, new thoughts, or suggestive ideas.

  • Loftus studied the manipulation of memories by presenting subjects with true and false post-event narratives with the participants' family or close relatives' help.

  • The misinformation effect is a change in memories of past events due to exposure to false information.

  • The discrepancy detection principle refers to the importance of noticing differences between new information received and the original memory of the event, which makes the misinformation effect less likely to happen.

References

  1. Tousignant, J. P., Hall, D., & Loftus, E. F. (1986). Discrepancy detection and vulnerability to misleading postevent information. Memory & Cognition, 14(4), 329-338.

Frequently Asked Questions about Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth Loftus's theories are misinformation effect and discrepancy detection principle.

She is most famed for her ideas on manipulating memories through things we are told or exposure to misinformation. 

Elizabeth Loftus earned the 58th spot (and the top-ranked woman) among the 100 most influential in psychology, alongside Freud, Skinner, and Piaget. Her studies on memory, eyewitness testimony, and courtroom procedures made her known as one of the most important researchers in psychology.

In her research, Loftus discovered that substituting a more suggestive word for a neutral one in a question can alter a witness's memory. 

Elizabeth Loftus's memory research led her to conclude that human memory can be manipulated by any information, such as misinformation or suggestive ideas.

Final Elizabeth Loftus Quiz

Question

Elizabeth Loftus has spent most of her career studying the psychological and legal implications of ______.

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Answer

false memories

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Question

True or false. According to Elizabeth Loftus, eyewitness testimonies are enough to convict someone.

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Answer

False

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Question

Which situation can cause memory distortion, according to Elizabeth Loftus?


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Answer

A therapist inadvertently suggests abuse to explain a person’s symptoms

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Question

True or false. According to Elizabeth Loftus, all recovered memories of the abuse of victims reflect their authentic experiences.

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Answer

False

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Question

What was Elizabeth Loftus’s famous experiment?


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Answer

lost in a shopping mall experiment

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Question

Elizabeth Loftus’s 1974 study on automobile accidents examined how human memory can be distorted by _______.


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Answer

post-event information

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Question

According to Loftus, which of the following can alter a witness’s memory?

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Answer

Changing a word in a question during the investigation

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Question

What did Elizabeth Loftus lead Chris to believe in her false memory experiment?


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Answer

Elizabeth Loftus led her participant to believe that he got lost in a shopping mall when he was five years old.

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Question

At the end of the false memory experiment, what did the participant choose as the false memory?

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Answer

One of the actual memories

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Question

What were the critics’ concerns about Elizabeth Loftus’ false memory experiment?

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Answer

Elizabeth Loftus's critics express concern over the possibility of implanted false memories as actual experiences that have only recently been recovered from memory by suggestive incorrect information.

Show question

Question

True or false. In another false memory experiment, false beliefs increased when the ad included a photo of Bugs Bunny.

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Answer

True

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Question

________ is a change of memories of past events due to exposure to false information. 

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Answer

Misinformation effect

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Question

True or false. Discrepancy detection lessens the likelihood of the creation of false memories.

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Answer

True

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Question

According to _______, memory distortion is less likely if people notice differences between misinformation and their original memory.

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Answer

Discrepancy Detection principle

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Question

Which of the following can help people become more resistant to misinformation, according to the study of Tousignant et al. in 1986?

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Answer

Longer reading times

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