Apr 21, 2016

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus Delves into ‘The Fiction of Memory’


APRIL 19, 2016
PAUL BROWNING
California State University Dominguez

Elizabeth Loftus is the world’s leading expert on memory distortion.

The Social Justice Distinguished Speaker Series, co-founded by Shari R. Berkowitz and Jennifer Sumner, assistant professors in Criminal Justice Administration at the California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), is delving deep into miscarriages of justice in the criminal justice system by hosting two nationally recognized experts.

Shari R. Berkowitz

Steven Drizin, clinical professor of law and assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, will speak about juvenile false confessions on May 2 on the fifth floor of the University Library South Wing. Drizin is the post-conviction attorney for Brendan Dassey. Dassey’s case has drawn international attention due to the popular Netflix series “Making a Murderer.” Drizin’s lecture “Making a Murderer and the True Story of Brendan Dassey’s False Confession” will begin at 4:30pm.

The first lecture in the 2016 Social Justice Distinguished Speaker Series, “The Fiction of Memory,” which was presented on April 5 by Elizabeth Loftus, distinguished professor of social ecology and professor of law and cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. Loftus is the world’s leading expert on memory distortion.

Loftus and Berkowitz have collaborated on research together in the past, most recently with their colleagues Steven J. Frenda and Kimberly M. Fenn providing the first empirical evidence that sleep deprivation increases the risk an innocent person will falsely confess to an act of wrongdoing. They published their article “Sleep deprivation and false confessions,” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

During her lecture, Loftus focused on “miscarriages of justice” by sharing her latest research on false memories. She has consulted as an expert witness in high-profile legal cases, such as those involving Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Ted Bundy, Oliver North and Scooter Libby.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about the hundreds of individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. On the Innocence Project website there are now more than 300 cases of individuals who have spent 10, 15, 20, or more years in prison who we now know didn’t do the crime because DNA testing has proven their innocence. And when those cases were analyzed, about three-quarters were due to faulty human memory.”

Loftus and her colleagues have developed several research paradigms over the years to study memory distortion, such as the “misinformation effect,” which involves presenting eyewitnesses with erroneous post-event information about a mock accident or crime they had viewed earlier.

“One of the things that we find when the subjects get misleading post-event information is that it can negatively affect their memory about an incident they’ve seen with their own eyes,” she said.

Elizabeth Loftus

During her talk, Loftus also demonstrated a technique that was performed by doctoral students and professors at UCI to study the reliability of facial identification. Loftus presented the audience with several images of faces. She then showed the audience pairs of faces including the slightly altered face from before and a new face. Later, she gave a memory test by asking the audience to identify which faces they had seen at the start of the demonstration.

“During the first part of the test you overwhelmingly preferred one face over the other, saying, ‘That’s the one I saw!’ But for this last test pair, now you’re divided or you’re refusing to vote. So why are you wrong? Because I made you wrong? I made you wrong right here in the middle of a talk on memory distortion with my post-event information.”

In another experiment, Loftus and psychiatrist Charles Morgan, who has published articles about survival school soldiers, studied a group of SERE soldiers who underwent training to help them prepare if they were to become prisoners of war.

“As part of their experience, they undergo an extremely stressful thirty-minute interrogation. It involves physical hostility and screaming. Later, the soldiers have to answer questions about what they recall about that interrogation and the interrogator,” said Loftus. “After receiving misinformation, they were able to be misled about the interrogation, and some even identified someone who didn’t even remotely resemble that person.”

Loftus has also employed “false feedback” techniques to observe unique consequences that result from false memories. In one study, they planted false memories suggesting that as children, the subjects got sick after eating too many dill pickles or hard-boiled eggs.

“It’s one of the great moments in the life of an experimental psychologist when a graduate student comes in with data on Excel spreadsheets and I look at the data and say, ‘You know, we are making people avoid these foods by planting a false memory—it is working.’ If this could work on a fattening food, we could be on the brink of a new dieting technique here,” Loftus suggested.

The researchers took the false feedback technique a bit farther by using strawberry ice cream. Those who “fell for that manipulation” developed a false memory of getting sick from the ice cream, and did not want to eat it as much.

“This work has a lot of implications; not only theoretical implications for the working of memory, but practical implications,” said Loftus. “I never thought I’d be getting into the business of thinking about nutritional selection, or maybe making a dent in the obesity problem. I can definitely see a direction there, but I will well always be most passionate about the

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