Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Loftus’

Suggestible You 8

March 24, 2017

“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance.  The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.  This post is about the placebo response and related phenomena.   This is the eighth post on this book.

“Satan Worshippers, Aliens, and Other Memories of Things That Never Happened” is the title of Chapter 6.  It begins with the following quote from Josh Billings, “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.”  This post will explain why this is so, and that a misunderstanding of memory and how memory works led to much misery between and among families and to the false imprisonment of innocent people.

As healthy memory blog readers should know, we do not have direct contact or knowledge with the physical world.  See the healthy memory blog posts “Understanding Beliefs,” “Revising Beliefs,” and “More on Revising Beliefs.”  We construct mental models based on the data coming from our senses.  As we experience more and learn more we develop new models, revise old models, and form connections among related or associated models.

Too many people think that our eyes and ears act like video cameras and tape recorders, that we see and hear what is and that these recordings are permanent and accurate.  Consequently, in the courts a great deal of belief is put on eyewitness testimony, when data indicate that eyewitness testimony is flawed and prone to error.

In reality, our eyes and ears are taking light and sound and turning them into electrical signals in the brain.  The brain then constructs a version of what is being perceived and what makes sense.  Expectations from prior models play an important role in this process.  Our brains have to make assumptions and take shortcuts and sometimes makes mistakes.  Optical illusions, blind spots, and hallucinations are all examples of how our brains misinterpret what is being perceived—sometime to very confusing and dangerous ends.

Similarly, memories are not like flash drives.  Memory is an integrated constructive process that is constantly refining itself, rebuilding, restructuring, and finding shortcuts.  And sometimes, our memories play tricks on us,  Memory processes can be divided into three stages.  First the information has to be encoded.  Then there is the process of consolidation during storage.  The third phase is retrieval, which is the recall of the memory.  Changes occur throughout this process and some changes can be erroneous.

The failure to understand how memory works and its malleability that can lead produce errors resulted in teachers and caretakers being falsely accused of sexually abusing children, and of Satanic rituals.  As near as can be understood, the people who conducted these investigations honestly believed that these children were being sexually abused.  But their beliefs poisoned their investigations.  They asked leading questions and repeatedly questioned these children to the point of exhaustion.  Unfortunately, the courts and juries, who were equally ignorant of how memory works, sent innocent people to jail.  This problem continued for much longer than it should have, and it took way too many years for these erroneous convictions to be overturned.

There were also too many cases of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, many with Freudian conceptions of sex and repressed memories, inadvertently place memories of sexual abuse in the patients’ and clients’ minds.  Innocent parents were accused by their own children of sexual abuse.  These nightmares outdid the fiction of  Franz Kafka.   Imagine the pain that this caused within families. HM thinks that most of theses errors have been corrected, but he still fears that there are still therapists who should be avoided.  Be vary careful when choosing a therapist, and keep a watchful eye out doing the therapy.

Elizabeth Loftus is the leading psychologist who conducted research in this area, and who spent countless frustrating hours testifying in court.

Enter “false memory” into the healthy memory search block to find more posts on this topic.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More on Erroneous Eyewitness Testimony

March 11, 2015

This post is based primarily on an article by Steven J. Frenda, Rebecca M. Nichols, and Elizabeth F. Loftus titled “Current Issues and Advances in Information Research,” in Current Directions in Psychological Science (2015) 20, 20-23.  They note a recent discussion of the distorting effects witnesses have on the memory of other witnesses by Wright, Memon, Skakerberg, and and Gabbert (2009) in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 174-178.  They propose that there three accounts of why eyewitnesses come to report incorrect information.
A witness’s report may be altered due to normative social influence.  A witness might decide that the cost of disagreeing with law enforcement—or with other witnesses—is too high, and so adjusts her report accordingly.
Through informational social influence processes, a witness comes to endorse a version of events that is different from what he remembers because he believes it to be truer or more accurate than hi own memory.
A witness’s memory can become distorted, sometimes as a result of being exposed to incorrect or misleading information.
It is this third possibility that this blog post addresses.

Perhaps the first question is “who is vulnerable?”  The short answer is that nobody is immune to the distorting effects of misinformation, but some people are more vulnerable than others.  Very young children and the elderly are more susceptible to misinformation than adolescents and adults.  People who report lapses in memory and attention are also specially vulnerable.  These facts suggest that a poverty of cognitive resources results in an increased reliance on external cues to reconstruct memories.  Misinformation effects are easier to obtain when individuals’ attentional resources are limited.  Similarly, people who perceive themselves to be forgetful and who experience memory lapses may be less able or willing to depend on their own resources as the sole source of information as they mental reconstruct an event.

Two major studies containing more than 400 participants explored cognitive ability and personality factors as predictors of susceptibility to misinformation.  In these studies participants viewed slides of two crimes and later read narratives of the crimes that contained misinformation.  Participants who had higher intelligence scores, greater perceptual abilities, greater working memory capacities, and greater performance on face recognition tasks tended to resist misinformation and produce fewer false memories.   Some personality characteristics were also shown to be associated with false memory formation, particularly in individuals with lesser cognitive ability.  Individuals low in fear of negative evaluation and harm avoidance, and those high in cooperativeness, reward dependence and self-directedness were associated with increased vulnerability to misinformation effects.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI is being used to investigate brain activity association with misinformation effects.  In one study participants were shown a series of photographs and later listed to an auditory narrative describing, which included misinformation.  Shortly thereafter, they were placed in an MRI scanner and given a test of their memory for the photographs.  fMRI data revealed similar patterns of brain activity, but the true memories (formed by visual information) showed somewhat more activation in the visual cortex, whereas the false memories (derived from the auditory narrative) showed somewhat more activity in the auditory cortex.

Obviously a critical question is how to protect against misinformation effects.  To this end a cognitive interview (CI) methodology, which consists of a set of rules and guidelines for  interviewing eyewitnesses.  For example, the recommended methodology uses free recall, contextual cues, temporal ordering of events, and recalling an event from a variety of perspectives (for example, from a perpetrator’s point of view).
The technique also recommends that investigators avoid suggestive questioning, that they develop rapport with the witness, and discourages witnesses from guessing.  Research has supported the idea that the CI reduces or eliminates the misinformation effect.

Here the misinformation effect is considered only in the context of eyewitness testimony.  Unfortunately misinformation is a large problem that has only been exacerbated with the advent of the internet.  The central problem is that it is difficult to correct misinformation.  I would contend that there is an epidemic of misinformation with large numbers of people holding notions contrary to science.  It is extremely difficult to correct their misconceptions.  To read more about misinformation simply enter “misinformation”  into the healthy memory search box.

False Memories Leading to Confessions

March 8, 2015

In Dr. Kaku’s Future of the Mind he describes research in which false memories were implanted in animals.  As you will see in this post, there is no need to such physical implantations in humans.

According to the Innocence Project ( eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful conviction nationwide,playing a role in 72% of convictions overturned through DNA  testing.  Yet eyewitness  testimony is regarded as persuasive evidence by judges and juries.  In about 30% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty.  One can make a compelling argument that our legal system falls short on delivering justice.

Also consider individuals who were wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing children, frequently their very own children.  These wrongful convictions were the result of false memories being implanted by psychotherapists of a particular theoretical persuasion.  Understand that these therapists were not intentionally implanting false memories in their patients, but their therapeutic approach caused them to ask questions and make suggestions that resulted in these false memories of childhood sexual abuse.  The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus along with others conducted detailed and extensive research showing how easily false memories could be implanted and believed.  Loftus and others needed to spend many years testifying in court to get these wrongful convictions overturned and to prevent the occurrence of additional wrongful convictions.

Research has revealed that our memories are highly malleable.  We are still learning how malleable they are.  Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter reported their research on this topic in an article titled, “Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime,” in Psychological Science (2015), 1-11.  First, they conducted a screening phase using one hundred twenty-six undergraduate students at a Canadian university.  In the screening phase, the undergraduates provided consent for researchers to send an extensive memory questionnaire to their primary caregivers.  Eligibility  was based on the caregiver reporting that the participant had experienced at least one highly emotional event in the specified time frame, had not experienced  any of the target criminal events (assault, assault with a weapon, and theft), and had never had police contact.  The caregivers had to report in some detail at least one emotional event.  Caregivers were also asked  whether their child had experienced any of six negative emotional events, three of which were criminal (assault, assault with a weapon, and theft) and three of which were noncriminal (an accident, an animal attack, and losing a large amount of money).  For each recalled event , caregivers were asked to write a description of what they could remember, including the location, people present, time of year, age of the participant, and how confident they were that the event had occurred.

Of this sample, 70 students met the participation criteria and the first 60 of these eligible  students participated in the interview stage, which consisted of three interviews  at approximately at one week intervals. The interviews were on average 40 minutes long.  The same researcher, who used a scripted interview for all sessions, conducted all interviews.  In the first interview two of the events from the questionnaire, one that the participant had experienced and one that the participant had not experienced were verbal presented to the participant.  The true event was always presented first to maximize the interviewer’s credibility.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two false-memory conditions.  Participants in the criminal condition were told that they had committed a crime resulting in police contact.  One third of them were told that they had committed assault, another third that they had committed assault with a weapon, and the remainder that they had committed theft.  Participants in the noncriminal  condition were told they they had experienced an emotional event:  one third were told that they had had a powerful emotional experience during which they injured themselves, another third that they had been attacked by a dog, and the remainder  that they had lost a large sum of money and gotten in trouble with their parents.  The events themselves were not of particular interest, and were used in the interest of increasing generalizability.

During the interviews, the interviewer provided details.  No participant immediately recalled  the false event.  When participants had difficulty recalling the false event, the interviewer encouraged them to try to remember it, and (falsely) told them that most people  can remember these kinds of memories if they try hard enough.  Participants were told that the study  was an examination of memory retrieval methods, and they were asked  to use context reinstatement and guided imagery to retrieve the memory.  They were also told to practice visualization of the false event each night at home.  The strategies that were employed throughout the interviews were based on literature regarding the factors that facilitate the generation of false confessions.  For example, incontrovertible false evidence (the questionnaire your parents/caregivers provided said…), social pressure  (“Most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough), plus the suggested retrieval and imaging techniques).  The interview also worked at building good rapport with the interviewee.

These basic procedures were employed again in the second and third interviews held one week apart.  At the end of these interview the participants were asked some addition questions by the researchers, were informed about the  false memories and the purposes of the research.  One of the questions they were asked was whether they believed the false memory.  Their responses were further broken down by the number of details.  Of the 50 participants who reported 10 or more details, 44 believed that the false memory was true and 6 did not  believe that the false memory was true.  Of these the researchers concluded that there were 44 true false memories and that 6 of the respondents were what they termed “compliant.” That is they tried hard, but did not produce false memories.  Of the respondents who reported less than 10 details, 6 reported that they believed the event occurred but the researchers classified them as accepting, but not believing that a false memory had really been produced.

Of the participants assigned to the criminal condition 21 (70%) were classified as having false memories of being involved in the criminal event  resulting in police contact.  Of those 21, 8 provided an account involving the assaulting another person, 6 provided an account involving a theft, and 7 provided an account involve  assaulting another person with a weapon.  Although type of crime was not of interest, it did not appear to be a significant variable.

Of the participants given noncriminal false memories, 23 (76.67%) were classified as having false memories.  Of those 23, 8 provided an account involving an animal attack, 8 provided an account involving an accident resulting in injury, and 8 providing an account involving losing a large amount of money.  Again, these numbers did not differ significantly, nor did the differences between criminal and noncriminal false memories.

Clearly, interviews of suspects, and I would argue witnesses, needed to be conducted carefully or the justice system might again be led astray.  I would further argue that all pretrial testimony should be videotaped and available for review.

The Memory Factory

June 23, 2013

The Memory Factory is the title of the address delivered by Elizabeth Loftus at the Presidential Symposium of the 2013 Association for Psychological Science (APS) Convention. Research has revealed that 63% of the public believes that memory works like a video camera. Unfortunately, not only the public, but also the courts have believed this. Consequently, many have been convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony because jurors have an erroneous view of the accuracy of memory. Worse yet, parents have been jailed for the sexual abuse of their children as the result of false memories placed by their psychotherapist. The theoretical predilections of these psychotherapists was that repressed sexual abuse as children was the source of their clients’ current psychological problems. In the course of the therapy they unwittingly placed these false memories in their clients’ minds. Can you imagine a worse nightmare that having your child accuse you of sexual abuse that you know never happened? It is truly Kafkaesque! Well it happened many times, and parents, teachers, and childcare specialists were falsely accused, convicted and sent to jail. It was through the research of Elizabeth Loftus and her many painstaking court appearances that eventually overturned these convictions. I think it unlikely that there will be similar convictions in the future.

The reality is that memory is far from being like a video recorder and is highly malleable. Loftus work began simply by showing how modifications in the wording of a statement would induce biases that would induce false recall. Bear in mind that misleading or biasing statements are not needed. The accounts of different witnesses of a crime will vary radically. There is a very good National Geographic television special on memory that illustrates. Loftus also appears on that same program.

Loftus work advanced to the point where it was possible to plant rich false memories in people’s minds. They have been made to think that as children they were lost in a mall or park and later found. They will provide vivid accounts of things that never happened. False memories of having become sick in the past from eating different foods have resulted in people no longer liking these foods. Loftus has also been able to plant false memories of foods that they either did not like or were indifferent to and made people believe that these were foods they liked. Consequently, people started liking these foods. Examples of this were illustrated in a TV special featuring Alan Alda and Loftus.

False memories have also been created in individuals classified as being HSAM, Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. So the best memories that have been found are still vulnerable!

Recent research has used fMRI to try to determine if there were any differences in true versus false memories. No differences were detected. People’s confidence in their memories provides no indication of their accuracy. People can be highly confident in memories that are patently false.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Back from APS

May 28, 2013

That is, I’m back from the convention of the Association for Psychological Science. It was an outstanding meeting. This blog post will present a brief synopsis and will promise some blog posts for the future. As I mentioned in my previous post, there were so many interesting topics that some overlapped and I could not attend both. I actually needed to miss a program with Daniel Kahneman, whom I regard as the leading psychologist today. I am not going to review every presentation I attended. Some were primarily for psychologists and of little interest to the general public, some were too technical, and, frankly, some didn’t warrant further discussion.

The Keynote Address was delivered the split-brain researcher, Michael S. Gazzaniga. It was titled “Unity in a Modular World.” I going to discuss his presentation along with the presentation by Edwin A. Locke, “Whatever Happened to the Conscious Mind” in a later healthymemory blog post.

Diane Halpern gave what was perhaps the most timely and relevant presentation, “The Psychological Science Behind Hyperpartisanship and What to do About It.” This certainly deserves its own healthymemory blog post, which will be appearing later.

Helen J. Neville gave an APS William James Fellow Address titled, Experiential, Genetic, and Epigenetic Effecs in Human Neurocognitive Development.” Here talk was highly technical, and I shall not go into a detailed presentation. However, it’s importance is easy to assess. She found that there was a much higher incidence of difficulties in focusing attention in pre-schoolers from low socioeconomic status families than from higher socioeconomic status children. She was able to develop a training program that was able to correct this problem. As the ability to focus attention is important to learning and success in school, this program is highly relevant. Moreover, it is fairly short term and can be administered cheaply. More can be found about this program at

David Strayer gave a presentation on multi-tasking and using a cell phone while driving. In short, the risk is becoming greater. Much more will be written in a later healthymemory post. This is a message that people do want to hear, but it needs to be told.

At the Presidential Symposium,r Ted Abel gave a presentation on “Epigenetics and Memory Storage.” Remember the Healthymemory blog, “How the Brain and Mind Work.” That might have sounded complicated, but Abel is studying the epigenetics of the translation from DNA to RNA to protein, which underlies the formation of our memories. This work is most remarkable, as is the complexity of our brains and their emergent phenomena.

At the same symposium, Elizabeth Loftus updated her work on False Memories. This work will also be addressed in a later healthymemory blog post.

Stanovich presented his latest work on a Rational Intelligence Quotient. He has persuasively argued that the standard IQ misses an important component of cognitive activity, rational thinking. I will be following up on his work after I finish his latest book.

Ralph Hertwig gave an invited talk, “The Psychology of Decisions from Experience. People behave differently when they make decisions based on written descriptions than when they make their decisions based on experience. Vulcanologists are convinced that Mount Vesuvius will erupt in the near future. However, most of the residents of Naples, who are at risk from Vesuvius, do not want to move, because an eruption has not occurred in their lifetimes.

Mortan Ann Gernsbacher gave an address on Diversity and the Brain. This, too, will receive a later blog post.

Finally, there was a session on the cognitive reserve. Most certainly, this will receive its own blog post.

Do not expect all these posts to follow directly. First of all, they take time to write. Secondly, some posts will better fit in the context of other healthymemory blog posts.

Now for some general comments. I am continually impressed by the ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, and other personal devices at these conventions. This observation will get its own blog post. And I was disappointed about cognitive psychologists who were unfamiliar with meditation. It reminded me how parochial our discipline can be. It also reminded me of when I was a graduate student and there was a lively argument about whether the autonomic nervous system could be controlled by individuals. Well proficient meditators were already doing this, so the answer was already known. So if you read the healthymemory blog posts on meditation (enter meditation, Davidson, and Mindfulness in the healthymemory blog search post), you can consider yourself more knowledgeable about the topic than some cognitive psychologists.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.