Loftus on False and Implanted Memories

Slate has an interview with University of California–Irvine psychologist and law professor Elizabeth Loftus, who has spent her career studying the problem of false memories and how easily they can be planted in our brains, deliberately or not, and seem totally authentic and accurate to us even if they’re really a combination of accurate memory and information that was added later.

Alison George: You study the fallibility of memories. Are we all prone to making things up?

Elizabeth Loftus: We all have memories that are malleable and susceptible to being contaminated or supplemented in some way.

AG: I hear you collect accounts of false memories.

EL: Yes, mostly embarrassing mistakes that politicians have made. For example, Mitt Romney had a memory of being at the Golden Jubilee—an important festival in Michigan—and it turned out that the event occurred nine months before he was born.

AG: How does this happen? What exactly is going on when we retrieve a memory?

EL: When we remember something, we’re taking bits and pieces of experience—sometimes from different times and places—and bringing it all together to construct what might feel like a recollection but is actually a construction. The process of calling it into conscious awareness can change it, and now you’re storing something that’s different. We all do this, for example, by inadvertently adopting a story we’ve heard—like Romney did.

Here’s an example of how such a memory can be planted in an experimental situation:

AG: How do you plant these memories?

EL: We use a “false feedback” technique. We gather a whole bunch of data from you, about your personality, thoughts about different foods, all kinds of things. Later, we hand you this computerized profile, which reveals certain things that probably happened when you were a child. In the middle of the list is, say, that you got sick eating strawberry ice cream. We give you false feedback about your data, and then encourage you to elaborate and imagine.

Later we ascertain whether you have a belief that it happened to you. Then we offer you a choice from all these different foods. In that example we found that participants didn’t want strawberry ice cream as much.

Later studies have shown that if you plant a false memory about a certain food, when you offer people that food, they don’t eat as much of it.

AG: This works with alcohol too?

EL: Yes. We did a similar kind of false-feedback study with vodka. If we make people believe that before the age of 16 they got sick drinking vodka, they don’t want to drink as much vodka.

But most of the time, those memories aren’t implanted deliberately. For most of us — probably all of us, to one degree or another — some of our memories are a combination of reality and un-reality. On a folk wisdom level, we like to think of long-term memory storage like a hard drive — once the memory is stored, barring some damage to the hard drive, the “file” will be the same every time we open it up and look at it. But in reality, every time we recall it and save it there may be information added to it.

If we embellish the story a bit, it will often be saved with that embellishment in it. Tell the story enough times with that embellishment and the memory is then locked in place with that bit of false information. Thus, the high school football game that we lost becomes the game we won, and we scored the touchdown that did it at the last minute, and the person telling the story may actually be unaware that it’s not true. The file has been saved to the brain’s hard drive in an altered form and the new memory has replaced the old one.

It’s appropriate that Loftus is both a professor of psychology and law because this has major implications in our criminal justice system. It’s remarkably easy for police interrogators, for instance, to implant false memories or to subtly change the memories of an eyewitness or even the accused. It probably isn’t done deliberately in most cases, but it goes on quite regularly and is undoubtedly responsible for many false convictions.

Does this mean memory can never be trusted? Of course not. But it means that we need to understand how false memories come about and design safeguards to prevent it from happening as much as possible.

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  • I’ll see if I can track down the sources, but I’ve read that research into how memory works explains a lot about how false memories are created.

    Memories are not discrete “files” that wait to be retrieved; they are generated ad hoc out of a series of “archetypes.” You may think you remember the taste of every piece of bacon you’ve ever eaten, or every time you and your sweetheart have kissed, but the seeming fact is that you only have a tiny handful of such memories, which get assembled in different ways with other archetypes by a kind of rememberancer daemon in your consciousness to create the illusion of variety. When a person is very young and their brain is still growing, archetypes accumulate quickly. As we get older, our brains become less plastic and we rely more and more on established archetypes. Yes, there may well be a biological basis for why older people tend to be less adaptable to new ideas.

    False memories can be implanted just by convincing the rememberancer that certain archetypes should be connected in a certain way. With the “sick eating strawberry ice cream” test, all you are doing is coaxing the rememberancer daemon to link the archetypes of taste, texture and smell that collectively make up “strawberry ice cream” with a set of archetypes that make up “being sick.” After that, all one needs to do is reinforce the link. Similarly, false memories about child abuse can be created by getting the rememberancer to link ordinary childhood memories of someone with negative feedback archetypes, then offer an explanation to reconcile the resulting cognitive dissonance.

  • tbp1

    I heard Loftus speak once. Very impressive. At the time she was traveling with bodyguards because she had been threatened by people who took issue with her work on recovered memory with respect to (alleged) childhood abuse. I’m guessing that’s a rarity for academic psychologists.

    One of the reasons I’m very skeptical about eyewitness testimony and long term memory:

    On the order of 25 years ago a young child of friends of ours did something particularly cute. My wife insists we were present when it happened, and I think our friends just told us about it. We’re both quite convinced we’re right. We’re both pretty smart, pretty observant people with good memories, and we don’t have any particular investment in being right about such a trivial matter, but we still disagree.

    I suppose we could contact the friends and get their memory of it, but time and geography have made us drift apart and we’re not really in touch any more. And it’s not like it’s something all that important.

    I’ve been on juries a couple of times and I thought about this when I was evaluating eyewitness testimony. Aside from the possibility of a witness just lying, it is altogether possible that they remember something that simply didn’t happen, or are mistaken about some aspects while correct about others.

  • gshelley

    Sottomeyer actually mentioned some of this in her dissent in Perry vs New Hampshire

    “Eyewitnessevidence derived from suggestive circumstances, we haveexplained, is uniquely resistant to the ordinary tests of theadversary process. An eyewitness who has made an identification often becomes convinced of its accuracy. “Regardless of how the initial misidentification comes about, the witness thereafter is apt to retain in his memory the image of the photograph rather than of the person actually seen, reducing the trustworthiness of subsequent . . . courtroom identification.”

  • I have been obsessed with the neurobiology of tourette syndrome since I was diagnosed about four years ago. Part of that disorder involves how our brains do the work of perception and what perception is and it’s all very fascinating.

    Remembering is re-experiencing. Experience is a precept assembled out of a representation of a scene conveyed by visual perceptions, audio perceptions, skin and gravity sensations, smells, tastes, and the emotional impressions connected to all the objects and symbolism of meaning in the scenes (emotions that are themselves phenomena distributed across the brain as these perceptions are captured and given the meaning by us).

    Because all these things are assembled out of sub-parts that are connected in ways much like a concept map, one can access these sub-parts accidentally as one goes searching randomly for other reasons. Thus the memory of what you formerly experienced can become tangled with all sorts of other things by means that are related to the fact that all doors include passage, entry, exit, closure, opening and other things as sub-concepts. New memories are built on the pieces of what we already know and mistaken connections are another kind of bias we need to get used to.

  • leftwingfox

    I had remarkably accurate memories of the back alley where I grew up in Montreal. Despite moving when I was 4, I could remember a lot of the details of the alley when we revisited the neighbourhood 12 years later, surprising my parents.

    What surprised me was how mixed the memories outside the alley were. I had no memories of the front of our house, despite facing a large green park. In my memories, that park was in a completely different neighbourhood.

  • ludicrous

    This is important stuff for undermining the goblin beliefs. It is subversive of our sense of certainty. For many believers certainty is safety, very conforting and difficult to give up.

  • khms

    And it’s not as if this is new information. The details and explanations, sure, but even Perry Mason (or rather his author, Erle Stanley Gardner) already knew how unreliable eye witnesses were.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    This is common in politicians. One can’t remember that he saw concentrations camps in the movies instead of real life. Another can’t even remember his childhood in Kenya.

  • Al Dente

    A while ago my mother, my brother and I were discussing something that happened in 1966. We were all present but we have completely different and conflicting memories of what occurred.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Now that they have this admission on public record, the strawberry and vodka industries are gonna sue Dr. Loftus so hard…

  • naturalcynic
  • Markita Lynda—threadrupt

    My son is sure that he remembers a couple of things from his very early childhood. They just happen to be things we have pictures of!

  • jaybee

    There is the famous case of the researcher who interviewed a bunch of people a few days after the first space shuttle disaster. Then a few years later, the same people were interviewed again about their recollections of the event. Most people had one or more serious discrepancies, eg, right after the disaster they said they were puttering around at home when the heard about it, but a few years later they said they were at work. Some people, when their original interview transcript was read to them, claimed that they must have been wrong back then but they were still sure they were right now!

  • I’m pretty Autistic stuff so I tend to be pretty cynical about the whole ’embellishment’ bit on false memory, etc, as it applies to Autistic people; one of the mainstays of my Autism is brutal reproduction of fidelity to whatever happens in reality as my Autism makes lying an extremely hard thing to do. Obviously lying and embellishment aren’t the same, the point is that embellishment for Autistic people such as me is something that’s going to be quite rare compared to NT’s, who are masters at embellishing their stories on the fly in real time. Autistic people (some of us) we have a much much harder time of doing that, and, if we’re lying about something, embellishments or not, we tend to leave out details rather than adding them, because we tend to have a way, way harder time of lying or even just embellishing, in real time, than NT’s do. I fully believe the conclusions of this study apply to NT’s: I’ve seen many embellish past accomplishments to impress me, but Autistics? Many, if not most of us, would usually tend to need to rehearse whole conversational scenarios in order to even be capable of embellishment, much akin to introverts in some ways, which I also happen to be one of (in some ways extroverted).

  • eric

    I remember (or do I? 🙂 attending a lecture by one of Loftus’ co-workers, who used a quite amusing false memory to study the effect; they convinced people that they had seen Bugs Bunny at Disneyworld.

    But the really amusing part is that the researcher had wanted to look at alien abduction memories. Unfortunately, he couldn’t definitively prove them to be false, so he had to find something less believable…and thinking that the Disney corporation would let a guy in a Warner Bros. suit walk around their park was evidently less believable than alien abduction.