March 11, 2009

Changing Minds

Sheril at The Intersection is asking where the women with big, world-changing ideas are. JLK at Pieces of Me wants to know where the psychologists are who made a difference in the world. I can answer them both in one person, Elizabeth Loftus.

Even if you're not in psychology, there's a fair chance you've heard of Loftus. She's known as a skeptic, and her work has enough real-world implications that she makes the news fairly frequently.

If you are in psychology and you don't know who she is...well, I don't know what to do with you.

Loftus has been researching memory for somewhere around forty years. She started out by doing what everyone around that time was doing, studying storage and retrieval, classification and chunking--the nuts and bolts of memory of items. Then she started asking the kind of questions JLK is now.

All this time, Loftus had been working seven days a week on yellow fruits: specifically, she was studying how the mind classifies and remembers information. In the early seventies, she began to reevaluate her direction. "I wanted my work to make a difference in people's lives." She asked herself, "What do I talk about when I have no other reason to be talking?" An impassioned conversation about a man who'd been convicted after killing someone in self-defense suggested the answer. Perhaps she could combine her interest in memory with her fascination with crime by looking at eyewitness accounts.

Loftus obtained a grant to show people films of accidents and crimes and test their memory of such events. Thus the study of eyewitness testimony was born, a field she can literally claim as her own. At that time the world believed that eyewitness testimony was as reliable as a video camera. Loftus found that just the questions interviewers asked, and even the specific words they used, significantly influenced memory. "How fast were the two cars going when they hit each other?" will elicit slower estimates than "...when they smashed each other?"

Merely by careful questioning, Loftus could cause subjects to remember stop signs as yield signs, or place nonexistent barns in empty fields. Subsequent research has shown that violent events decrease the accuracy of memory: in fact, memory is weakest at both low (boredom, sleepiness) and high (stress, trauma) levels of arousal. The bottom line? Memory is fragile, suggestible, and can easily decay over time.

In other words, she started studying how memory works in real life, with real complications. In the process, she completely changed how we think about memory. She also changed police procedures and how trials are conducted. She created a great deal of upheaval, for which she's probably still not well liked, but she set us on the path to understanding the science behind at least one part of the law.

In the eighties, another kind of memory started hitting courtrooms--recovered memory of sexual abuse, sometimes of organized ritual abuse. Loftus paid attention.

We live in a strange and precarious time that resembles at its heart the hysteria and superstitious fervor of the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Men and women are being accused, tried, and convicted with no proof or evidence of guilt other than the word of the accuser. Even when the accusations involve numerous perpetrators, inflicting grievous wounds over many years, even decades, the accuser's pointing finger of blame is enough to make believers of judges and juries. Individuals are being imprisoned on the "evidence" provided by memories that come back in dreams and flashbacks -- memories that did not exist until a person wandered into therapy and was asked point-blank, "Were you ever sexually abused as a child?" And then begins the process of excavating the "repressed" memories through invasive therapeutic techniques, such as age regression, guided visualization, trance writing, dream work, body work, and hypnosis.

Loftus had already seen how easy it was to change the details of memory by asking the right questions. Now she turned her attention to creating memories of events that never happened. We may not be surprised now that this can happen, and fairly easily, but much of that understanding is due to her work.

This was, of course, controversial.

She has been called a whore by a prosecutor in a courthouse hallway, assaulted by a passenger on an airplane shouting, "You're that woman!", and has occasionally required surveillance by plainclothes security guards at lectures.


Perhaps her voluminous mail says it best. One anonymous letter from an incest survivor concludes, "Please consider your work to be on the same level as those who deny the existence of the extermination camps during WWII." Another, from a jailed minister accused of mass child molestation, begins, "Your dedication and compassion for the innocent have earned my deepest admiration." Yet another, from a confused therapy patient, reads: "For the past two years I have done little else but try to remember. I have been told that my unconscious will release the memories in its own time and in its own way...And I need to know if I am really remembering. The guessing has become unbearable."

Loftus has been challenged on the basis that she doesn't study traumatic memory formation in children. However, her work (and others') suggests that the use of leading questioning, hypnosis, descriptions of others' abuse and statements that a patient matches the profile of an abuse victim are all problematic forms of therapy that could potentially lead to false memories being created. Her work, once again, has practical implications for how we help others and society.

Wherever one falls on the controversies surrounding Loftus, she has dramatically changed our understanding of memory. She's done this in ways that have direct implications for achieving justice. In doing so, she's changed our world.


JLK said...

Loftus is an absolute SFRSHS. (For those of you who don't know, that stands for SuperFuckingRockStarHolyShit.)

I almost considered going into cognitive if it meant working with her, but I couldn't give up my love of gender studies.

Thank you, Stephanie, for posting this. I needed to be reminded of psychologists like Dr. Loftus who not only had big ideas, but also used them to change the world.

Joshua said...

Interesting, I was familiar with Loftus's work but didn't know that she had been involved also in dealing with the repressed memory claims. Loftus is clearly a very talented person.

Stephanie Zvan said...

JLK, I can't tell you how happy I was when I realized I could do something to help. I've got nothing on the practical assistance front, but this I could do.

Joshua, not only is she talented but, well, driven is the wrong word. She's one of those people who's doing exactly what she wants to do. Her work is her play.

critter said...

I followed the story of false memories and witch hunts back in the '90s.

As I get older (almost 60) I don't know how much of what I 'remember' is real, as occasionally I have run across pictures and writings (sometimes by me) that contradict my 'memories'.

Stephanie Zvan said...

critter, it amazes me, really, that anyone ever thought that memory was a simple read-write procedure. It seems as though we had to know better, but maybe not.

Anonymous said...

However, let’s not forget that just 18 months ago, Dr. Loftus’s research was making headlines of a different sort. US Attorney General Patrick Fitzgerald’s cross-examination of Loftus in US v. Libby showed that her study “Beyond the Ken” (2006) was faulty. Contrary to the study’s conclusion, the potential jury members had a good understanding of the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

Stephanie Zvan said...

You're referring to this.

Yes, the study is flawed, which is why one never relies on just one study--or studies by just one person. It would be a bit much, though, to say it proves the opposite of what's claimed based on ambiguous questions.

More to the point, does Dr. Loftus somehow have to be flawless for her body of work to count?

Murphy said...

When an expert witness like Dr. Loftus misinterprets findings, this simply makes it easier for the opposing attorney to discredit her testimony—as Fitzgerald did during cross-examination in US v. Libby (Deposition, pp 61-66).

Granted, misinterpretations like this are not subject to retraction or even correction. Still, it does suggest that Dr. Loftus may have made similar misinterpretations in the past. In fact, some have suggested that the abstract for Loftus and Burns (1982) misinterprets the findings (p. 320). Here, Loftus dismissed the responses on the central details as “filler,” (p. 320) and based the conclusion on participants’ correct responses for an unimportant detail—the number on the back of a witness’s shirt. This became a problem for Loftus in a 2006 deposition in a lawsuit against the Diocese of Phoenix.

smartnews said...

Loftus work has been misapplied to traumatic memory, and allegations about her ethics have been questined. See:

Several studies and authors have found significant flaws in the Lost in the Mall study. A similar study by Pezdek in 1995 found that while researchers were able to duplicate the lost in the mall results with 15% of their subjects, none of the study participants accepted an erroneous memory that they had received a painful enema as a child.[1][2] Crook states that the Lost in a Shopping Mall study’s application to therapy situations appears to be “limited to a narrowly defined and perhaps even unlikely situation” and states that the study’s “internal scientific methodological errors cast doubt on the validity of the claims” of the study.[3] [1]Crook also states that it has been demonstrated that the “methods, data, and assumptions in the mall study have not been subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny” yet its results have been reported to the media to support the claim that “therapists can implant false memories of childhood trauma.”[2] Pope also questions the study. He questions the analogy of a memory of being lost in the mall as being equivalent to that of child rape. He also talks about the problem of confounding variables in the study. If an older family member claims to have seen the “false” memory, can a therapist make the same claim? And should this research be applied to “false” memories in therapy?[4][5] Others have also critiqued Loftus’ scholarship and accuracy[6] or that Loftus’ has done research that may contradict her own beliefs of recovered memories. [7]

1 Pezdek, K; Hodge, D. (July-August 1999). "Planting false childhood memories: The role of event plausibility". Child Development 70 (4): 887–895. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00064. Retrieved on 2008-01-30. “This experiment tested and supported the hypothesis that events will be suggestively planted in children's memory to the degree that the suggested event is plausible and script-relevant knowledge exists in memory.”

2 K. Pezdek, Planting False Childhood Memories: When Does It Occur and When Does It Not? paper presented at the 36th Annual Meeting of the Psychonomics Society (Nov. 10-12, 1995) cited in Murphy, Wendy J. (1997).Debunking "false memory" myths in sexual abuse cases.Trial: Journal of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, November, 1997. Retrieved June 05, 2008

3 Crook, L. (1999). "Lost in a Shopping Mall--A Breach of Professional Ethics.". Ethics & Behavior. 9 (1): 39–50. doi:10.1207/s15327019eb0901_3. Retrieved on 2008-01-18. “An analysis of the mall study shows that beyond the external misrepresentations, internal scientific methodological errors cast doubt on the validity of the claims that have been attributed to the mall study within scholarly and legal arenas. The minimal involvement——or, in some cases, negative impact——of collegial consultation, academic supervision, and peer review throughout the evolution of the mall study are reviewed.”

4 Pope, K. (1996). "Memory, Abuse, and Science: Questioning Claims About the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic". American Psychologist 51: 957. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.51.9.957. Retrieved on 2008-01-31. “Does the trauma specified in the lost-in-the-mall experiment seem comparable to the trauma forming the basis of false memory syndrome? Loftus (1993) described the implanted traumatic event in the shopping-mall experiment as follows: "Chris was convinced by his older brother Jim, that he had been lost in a shopping mall when he was five years old" (p. 532). Does this seem, for example, a reasonable analogy for a five-year-old girl being repeatedly raped by her father?....Is it possible that the findings are an artifact of this particular design, for example, that the older family member claims to have been present when the event occurred and to have witnessed it, a claim the therapist can never make? To date, replications and extensions of this study have tended to use a similar methodology; that is, either the older family member makes the suggestions in his or her role as the experimenter's confederate, or the experimenter presents the suggestion as being the report of an older family member, thus creating a surrogate confederate.”

5 "Memory, Abuse, & Science: Questioning Claims about the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic" (1996). American Psychologist vol. 51, no. 9: pp957–974..

6 Jennifer Hoult, Esq.. "Consider the Evidence for Elizabeth Loftus' Scholarship and Accuracy "Remembering Dangerously" & Hoult v. Hoult: The Myth of Repressed Memory that Elizabeth Loftus Created".

7 Hopper, J.. "Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse Scientific Research & Scholarly Resources". "Loftus has conducted and published research which calls into question her public statements on recovered memories; her own study demonstrated that the conditions of amnesia and delayed recall for sexual abuse do exist"

The Alleged Ethical Violations of Elizabeth Loftus in the Case of Jane Doe

Quotes: Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D.

Imagination inflation: A statistical artifact of regression toward the mean. Pezdek K, Eddy RM Mem Cognit 2001 Jul; 29(5):707-18; discussion 719-29 “In the imagination inflation procedure of Garry, Manning, Loftus, and Sherman (1996), subjects rated a list of events in terms of how likely each was to have occurred in their childhood. Two weeks later, some of the events were imagined; control events were not. The subjects then rated the likelihood of occurrence for each event a second time. Garry et al. (1996) reported that the act of imagining the target events led to increased ratings of likelihood. This finding has been interpreted as indicating that false events can be suggestively planted in memory by simply having people imagine them. The present study tests and confirms the hypothesis that the results that have been attributed to imagination inflation are simply a statistical artifact of regression toward the mean.” Author contact: Department of Psychology, Claremont Graduate University, California 91711-3955, USA.

Elizabeth Loftus herself has published studies showing evidence of recovered memory. The 4 January 1996 issue of Accuracy About Abuse notes: Elizabeth Loftus, high profile FMSF advocate, published a paper with colleagues on Remembering and Repressing in1994. In a study of 105 women outpatients in a substance abuse clinic 54 % reported a history of childhood sexual abuse. 81% remembered all or part of the abuse. 19% reported they forgot the abuse for a period of time and later the memory returned. Women who remembered the abuse their whole lives reported a clearer memory, with a more detailed picture. Women who remembered the abuse their whole lives did not differ from others in terms of the violence of the abuse or whether the violence was incestuous. [Psychology of Women Quarterly, 18 (1994) 67-84.]

Loftus has also discussed “motivated forgetting”, and has presented the documented study of a college professor who became unable to remember a series of traumas, but after some time was able to recover those memories. Loftus remarked “after such an enormously stressful experience, many individuals wish to forget… And often their wish is granted.” (Loftus, 1980/1988, p. 73)”

"The hypothesis that false memories can easily be implanted in psychotherapy (Lindsay & Read, 1994; Loftus 1993; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Ofshe and Watters, 1993, 1994; Yapko, 1994a) seriously overstates the available data. Since no studies have been conducted on suggested effects in psychotherapy per se, the idea of iatrogenic suggestion of false memories remains an untested hypothesis. (Memory, Trauma Treatment, And the Law Brown, Scheflin and Hammond (D. Corydon), 1998, W. W. Norton 0-393-70254-5)
"Lost in a Shopping Mall"—A Breach of Professional Ethics
ETHICS & BEHAVIOR, vol. 9, #1, pp. 39-50
The "lost in a shopping mall" study has been cited to support claims that psychotherapists can implant memories of false autobiographical information of childhood trauma in their patients. The mall study originated in 1991 as 5 pilot experiments involving 3 children and 2 adult participants. The University of Washington Human Subjects Committee granted approval for the mall study on August 10, 1992. The preliminary results with the 5 pilot subjects were announced 4 days later. An analysis of the mall study shows that beyond the external misrepresentations, internal scientific methodological errors cast doubt on the validity of the claims that have been attributed to the mall study within scholarly and legal arenas. The minimal involvement—or, in some cases, negative impact—of collegial consultation, academic supervision, and peer review throughout the evolution of the mall study are reviewed.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Wow, my first copy-paste comment spam.

critter said...

You've hit the big time!

Stephanie Zvan said...

I know. My blog is all growed up now.